The Writing Project (Teacher) Writers

For the past nine months or so, I have been coordinating a partnership between our local newspaper (The Daily Hampshire Gazette) and our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My role has been to solicit teachers in our writing project to write an educational column for the monthly education section of the newspaper. It’s a partnership that our writing project once had with another regional newspaper (The Springfield Republican) and it’s a natural fit, in a way.

The newspaper needs columnists. Our teachers can write. And our writing project gets some nice benefits by being associated with some great writers and educators in a very public forum. (Unfortunately, they don’t get paid for writing for the newspaper.) While the newspaper runs a paid website for most of its content, they have agreed to provide us with public urls to the columns by our teachers. So, here is what we have written about and explored this year:

My wife, Leslie, is a media specialists/librarian at a vocational high school, and she has done a lot of work around book clubs for her students. A grant she received has allowed her to run after-school programs that now mesh books with film.

“When I started a book club at my school, I wasn’t so naïve as to imagine that high school students would choose multicultural classics, or even books with optimistic themes. But I also didn’t expect a steady diet of dystopian literature or books about youth getting a raw deal from those in power.” — read more of her column

Momodou Sarr teaches special education at a regional high school. His column was about the power of community and the power of expectations of our students, no matter the academic level. He also shows how project-based learning, with real involvement in the community, can make a difference.

“Teaching in a self-contained classroom means that a group of students becomes your family, in a way. It is interesting to watch how grade-level identities disappear. Students coming together in one classroom begin the difficult task of trusting each other, letting stereotypes melt away as they gain trust in each other as well as the teachers in the classroom.” — read more of his column

Alicia Lopez wrote about her experiences teaching at a middle school, and about how emerging student writers are a powerful group to be witness to, and help along. She also explains how difficult it can be for a teacher to juggle teaching with their own lives outside of school.

“I find it hard to believe that I am halfway through my 17th year as a language teacher. I have taught grades five to 12, and am now in my eighth year of teaching middle school in Amherst. Having come from a family of supremely dedicated and hard-working teachers, I resisted the profession for a long time. I saw the exhaustion and frustration on my parents’ faces after a long day of teaching and dealing with students. Eventually, though, the other side of that story is what has kept me teaching: the simple rewards of reaching a student, of making a connection, of, in the long run, changing a life.” — read the rest of her column

Michael Braidman teaches English and runs the Drama Club at a high school. He wrote about the experience of providing a multitude of rich experiences for his students, and watching them flourish on the stage.

“As educators, we find opportunities both in and out of the classroom. I’m fortunate enough to run my high school’s drama company, which, like all extracurriculars, provides valuable teaching experiences for its coach as well as great learning opportunities for participants. After school the auditorium becomes like a second classroom for me, a place where I engage students in intellectual discussions on literature (specifically, plays we’re producing) as well as teach them about the various tasks, materials and arrangements necessary to put on a theatrical production. When I bring together a cast and crew to prepare, rehearse and perform a play, I’m facilitating all sorts of learning, as well as giving students a chance to have some fun. Some of them also find unique leadership opportunities.” — read more of his column

Julie Spencer-Robinson used her column to tell the story of how she helps her middle school students understand empathy, and action on behalf of others.

““Who are those kids?” Andrew asked me. He was talking about the boy in the wheelchair who rolled down the hallway outside our sixth-grade classroom every day, accompanied by one or two of his classmates and their aides. “Oh, they’re in a special class down the hall,” I replied. Later, we learned that the name of the boy in the wheelchair was Gary, and he and Andrew quickly struck up a friendship. They would hang out together at Andrew’s locker, and Gary would use his communication device — or his aide — to crack jokes with his new friend. Pretty soon Gary was coming into our classroom to visit, and so were some of the other kids in his class. ” — read more of her column

And I kicked off the series last fall with a piece on understanding video gaming as I listened to my students.

“It’s become clear to me over the last few years that video gaming is one of those worlds that most teachers and most adults know very little about, and one area of youth culture that we are more likely to dismiss as entertaining diversions rather than immersive environments where interesting learning and skill development takes place. We’re more likely to dismiss gaming rather than embrace it.” — read more of my column

We’re proud of our teachers and about the ways we have worked with the newspaper to focus on our teachers as writers. Just as important, we know we have important things to say, and the newspaper has been just another way to reach our audience.

Peace (in the sharing),

Slice of Life: New Literacies Consulting

Yesterday after school, I dashed to my car and drove to another school district in the area, where I am beginning to do some consulting work around the integration of technology and New Literacies ideas in an elementary school setting (this is all through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project). This district received an Innovation Grant from our state and is doing inquiry around how they can better use technology for student engagement and learning.

I was brought in yesterday to chat with a committee of teachers, parents, School Committee members, and the principal about the venture. I’ll also be spending an entire day there in late April, doing some demonstrations in classrooms and then working with the staff in the afternoon. It’s exciting to be part of this school’s push forward, and I hope I can help them do it in a meaningful way.

Our meeting yesterday was pretty informal. I presented some of my views around technology:

  • Helping student make the shift from consumers of media to creators of content
  • Using the backwards design model so that technology is just a tool to get where we need to be, not the focus of the instruction itself
  • Making sure teachers have time to play and investigate and reflect on technologies in a safe, nurturing community
  • Moving away from the isolated Computer Lab model to a more integrated model of technology right in the classroom
  • Valuing the technology literacies of students outside of school
  • Understanding that online communities provide important professional development opportunities
  • Reaching the “middle group” of teachers who are ready to make a shift, but need a path forward

One of my suggestions is that the school consider a “theme” for its move forward, and so we talked a lot about digital storytelling and its power to use voice, image, multimedia and writing across various age levels. My demonstrations will focus on digital storytelling in the various grades, although it will be only a taste (in a limited time).

In the meeting, there were questions around a lot of topics already, including:

  • Differentiated instruction and reaching all students with technology
  • The potential value of 1-to-1 computing environments
  • Ways to consider digital citizenship as part of an instructional unit
  • How technology can create pockets of collaboration
  • The potential of publishing for students
  • How does an ICT position (the lab teacher) transform into a technology coach position
  • How technology use might look different in the lower grade levels (and what that might look like)

I have to admit, I felt pretty honored and humbled to have been invited into this role. While I know I do a lot with technology with my students, and I am invited to give PD at various times for other districts, I’d love to see this consultant gig emerge into a partnership with this school where I can provide resources, advice and learning experiences for the teachers there in a way that makes sense for them. I want to value their school culture in our work. I see the role of consultant in this way as more of a partner, and guide, than the “expert.” My hope is to learn from them, as they learn from me.

Peace (in the sharing),



Resources from WMWP: Gaming, Digital Storytelling and Social Networking


Participants at our recent Western Massachusetts Writing Project event around pop culture, technology and the Common Core were asking that we presenters share out our resources, so they can share them out with colleagues. Of course, we agreed, since the writing project is all about the sharing of ideas. We had three main sessions: video game design, digital storytelling with online tools, and social networking with Edmodo.

Feel free to peruse the resources.


Peace (in the files),


Sharing, Learning, Exploring: WMWP Tech Event

If you have been the main organizer for a technology-infused event that brings together people you want to bring together, you know know how much stress goes into it. You wake up early that morning and think: nothing’s going to work today. The Internet will be down. The computers will be funky. People will get lost and won’t show …..

WMWP Tech Shot
That was me, yesterday morning (earlier than I want to say), as we held our Western Massachusetts Writing Project event that focused in on pop culture, technology and writing and the Common Core standards (now adopted by our state). Everything was perfect, though. The host school — West Springfield Middle School — is a fabulous facility, with three adjacent spaces that we used; almost everyone who signed up, arrived (and then some); our high school students who we brought in as our keynote speakers were fabulous; and the participants (about 25 people plus about 8 WMWP presenters) felt as if they could have used a few more hours exploring the themes and sites we shared with them.

Our technology team at WMWP led the event, with presenters coming from our ranks, and we explored the literacy in the lives of our students outside of school, the impact of technology on learning, and then breakout sessions took place for social networking (with Edmodo), digital storytelling (with Animoto and Voicethread), and gaming (with Gamestar Mechanic). Lots of people wanted the digital storytelling session, so we had some juggling to do, and it reminds us that teachers are looking for writing to be the very center of student work. There is high interest right now in digital storytelling, and free tools (which is what we focused on). We also made connections between our event and the national Digital Learning Day that just passed.


Our keynote speakers were from an organization called Video Vanguard (part of a Youth Action Coalition), and the two high school students were articulate and passionate and insightful about the ways that young people use media and technology. They shared a video project they recently completed in which they traveled to New York to observe the Occupy Wall Street movement, and focused a video on gender inqualities in the workplace. They interviewed people on the streets, and edited it into a powerful 5-minute video. It was full of researched information, and point-of-view, and video composition. What a great piece of art to share.

And it set the tone for the day, too, particularly when the students urged us teachers to “pay attention” to our students, and to find out what they are doing by forging personal relationships with them. Make connections, they told us, and ask questions. “Personal connections. It makes a difference,” Katie said.

Peace (in the sharing),



WMWP Pop Culture/Technology Conference

This Saturday, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project holds a technology conference in conjunction with Digital Learning Day. We will have about 25 to 30 people (including the presenters) attend as we explore the intersections of popular culture, technology and the new (Common Core-influenced) Massachusetts Curriculum Standards. I’m pretty excited about it. I am leading a session with my friend, Tina, on video game design and kicking off the day with a quick introduction.
Here is what I will be talking about to start off the conference:
Pop Culture, Technology and the Common Core PDF

Peace (in the sharing),

Upcoming WMWP Theme: Digital Writing

Each year, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project develops a “theme” that focuses our work throughout the year. The thematic thread points us to readings we want to do together, inspires our writing when we gather together, and provides a lens for workshops and professional development opportunities.

Two years ago, we explored social justice as part of our work with the National Writing Project’s “Project Outreach” initiative. The theme had us questioning (in a positive) way how we were working to meet the needs of all the teachers in our area. We came out of the year with new Mission Statement that really set forth our ideals around the impact of teaching for social change.

This year, we have been working around the Common Core, which our state has adopted as its new curriculum framework. An upcoming technology conference (which takes place in conjunction with Digital Learning Day) connects digital composition with standards in the Common Core curriculum. At other times, we have dove deeper into the curriculum, noting changes that will soon be impacting the things and ways we teach. This spring, we will be looking hard at the way that the new assessments (PARCC for us) are shaping up, and how those tools are going to affect our schools.

We’ve decided that next year, our theme will be digital media and digital writing. We’ll be using NWP’s Because Digital Writing Matters as a primary text for discussions and then sites like Digital Is as a resource. Our WMWP Technology Team, which has about 10 active members, will be the leaders of the effort, and as the technology liaison for WMWP, this is exciting for me. I am hoping we can find ways to draw people into the possibilities of digital tools for their students, and find ways to showcase student engagement and student use of technology in meaningful ways.

The idea of a “theme”over a long stretch of time is valuable, and opens up a lot of possibilities. Too often, our work around professional development seems scattered.

Peace (in the theme),


WMWP: Pop Culture, Technology and the Common Core

Our focus at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project has been on ways to make the new Massachusetts State Standards (influenced by the Common Core) a workable reality for teachers in the areas of literacy. Our upcoming technology event will do that from a slightly different angle: looking at how our popular culture, technology and learning can come together in the classroom. This event was inspired in large part by Dr. Ernest Morrell’s presentation at last year’s National Writing Project Urban Sites Conference, in which he encouraged teachers to turn the lens on the culture that influences and shapes student interaction, writing and engagement.

We’re hoping to do that with a keynote presentation from a group of high school video producers called Video Vanguard, and then provide some opportunities for attendees to “learn and play” with technology around topics of gaming and social networking and more. We’ll also be providing time for reflection and connection with other educators. Our aim is to show how to validate the worlds of our young people while exploring the ways these cultural ideas can connect to the curriculum that we teach. In fact, the Common Core opens up a lot of doors to using technology, media and more for research, writing and publishing.

If you live in Western Massachusetts, please consider signing up for our event, which is taking place on Saturday February 4. (You can now register and pay online for WMWP events.)

WMWP Technology Event Feb2012

This event is also in conjunction with the national Digital Learning Day, which seeks to highlight the ways that technology and digital media can transform education and engage students. We’re also putting together a survey for Massachusetts teachers around their use of technology and digital media in the classrom for Digital Learning Day, in hopes of creating a database of educators who are on the leading edge of this movement.

Peace (in the culture),


Development of an Idea: From Conference, to Camp, to Classroom

I’ve been doing very little other than reflecting on our current science-based Game Design Unit now underway. But it occurred to me the other day how far back this idea of how to use game design in my writing classroom began to ferment. It all began with the National Writing Project, and a session that I attended at the 2010 NWP Annual Meeting on gaming. There, we learned about the philosophical underpinning of game design theory and how those concepts can intersect with learning. We played games; we made games; we talked games.

I came away from that annual meeting, thinking: this is important.

But I had no idea where to begin. Then, I realized that the youth summer camp program that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project runs would be a perfect incubator for ideas, and with the help of my WMWP colleague, Tina, we launched a very successful and interesting summer camp program for about 15 game-playing boys, using Gamestar Mechanic and Scratch and some other programs for a week-long adventure into somewhat unknown territory for both Tina and I.

I saw enough of what was going on in that small group to think: this has real potential for my classroom.

But I vacillated towards the end of the summer: should I consider offering an after-school gaming program? Or should I bring the video game design ideas into all four of my sixth grade classroom? Was I ready for that? I even emailed my principal, asking if I could get permission to run a for-profit after-school gaming program. He supported the idea. Then, I had second thoughts. Who would come to that program? A select few hard-core gamers. I always complain that some of the most innovative ideas seem to be happening only outside of school. Who did I want to reach? All of my students. I want them all to be engaged. I decided against the after-school idea.

That’s when the National STEM Video Game Challenge came back onto my radar screen, and I realized that a collaboration between my science teacher colleague and myself might lead to something interesting: science-based video game designs that might have the potential for national recognition. That’s where we are right now: in the midst of game development, and it’s hectic, crazy, fun, interesting and exciting to be in my classroom every single day. There are challenges, and collaborations, and technical hurdles, and writing going on. It’s an amazing amount of learning.

And so, this path that began at the conference with the National Writing Project, and emerged in our Western Massachusetts Writing Project youth camp, is now flowering in my classroom for my 75 sixth graders. Sometimes, journeys begin like that, and that is the potential power of conferences to lead to change in the classroom (I say, somewhat sadly, because the defunding of the National Writing Project means no more conferences like that, for me).

Peace (in the reflection),


Featured in the NWP Annual Report

If you read my blog (thank you), you know how much I support and respect the work of the National Writing Project. In my first year of teaching, I found the local affiliate (Western Massachusetts Writing Project) and took part in the Summer Institute, and I have been influenced by its philosophy and work ever since. I’m not sure how I would have been able to teach as I do with NWP friends and educators to turn to for help and for support and for partnership.

So it was a great honor when last year, the NWP contacted me to ask if I would be willing to let a photographer spend the day in my classroom to gather photos for a feature of me for the NWP Annual Report. I was a bit shocked but of course, I agreed. The NWP had just lost all of its federal funding and it hopes to use the Annual Report to make its case with the federal government for support, and for other grant-funding institutions.

As it turned out, and as I planned, the day the photographer came to hang out with us, we were doing a poetry unit and working on Poems for Two Voice podcasts with our iPod Touch devices. I recently received a few copies of the Annual Report, and passed a few on to our school administration, and I love the photos of my kids in the midst of their learning. And Paul Oh’s kind write-up of me was nicely done, too.

I showed the report to my students the other day, and they were duly impressed with the photos of last year’s students, and with me. But I told them that it was the work they are doing as writers that gets attention. It’s another motivational factor for them — the fact that the spotlight might shine at any moment. So, be ready for it.

Here is a link to the NWP Annual Report (click on 2010 Annual Report link) but I have also embedded it. My kids and I are near the end – pages 19 and 20 with one of my students featured in a full spread on page 2.


Peace (in the report),