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),


CommonSense Media/Tech Study: Very Young Children

The Common Sense media group just released the results of a study of very young children (ages 0-8) and there are some interesting findings, including the increasing use of mobile devices and game consoles in young children’s lives. What is still in the air is whether this is good or bad, right?

Here is how Common Sense Media group describes the report:

Zero to Eight is a nationally representative survey of parents of U.S. children ages zero to eight, conducted to understand the patterns of media use among young American children. Covering TV, other video, reading, music, computers, video games, and mobile digital devices, we examine time spent and frequency of use; differences in children’s media use by gender, race, or socio-economic status; the home media environment; educational media use; and access to the newest mobile media platforms like smart phones and tablets.

One of the various findings (all of which are very interesting, by the way)  that stuck out for me is the continued Digital Divide concerns related to socio-economic factors in not only exposure to technology and media, but also knowledge of how to use it (thus, in my view, validating the ever-increasing importance of schools and teachers). They even reference an “App Gap” of who has access to mobile devices. That’s a new term for me.

Check out this chart from the study:

And this one around race and media use:

Some other findings:

* Half (52%) of all children now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home: either a smartphone (41%), a video iPod (21%), or an iPad or other tablet device (8%).
* Half (51%) of all 0- to 8-year-olds have ever played a console video game, including 44% of 2- to 4-year-olds and 81% of 5- to 8-year-olds. Among those who have played console video games, the average age at first use was just under 4 years old (3 years and 11 months). Among 5- to 8-year-olds, 17% play console video games at least once a day, and another 36% play them at least once a week.
* In a typical day, 47% of babies and toddlers ages 0 through 1 watch TV or DVDs, and those who do watch spend an average of nearly two hours (1:54) doing so.

I continue to be torn between being an advocate for young people learning and using technology and media for their own reasons and exposing young people to these elements of technology and media. This tension comes to me in my role as parent as well as teacher. I keep an eye on trying to give kids the tools to “create” and become the composers with the technology, and not just passive users. That’s my lens.

But studies like this indicate that too many parents of very young children are content to plop a kid in front of any screen and let them at it, no matter the age. That unsettles and worries me, to be honest. No screen should be a babysitter, and all of the initial research around brain development and technology seems to indicate something is going on with our brains when young people use technology.

I am hoping to use parts of this study at a future Western Mass Writing Project event as a way to look at technology and pop culture and media saturation.

Peace (in the wonderment of the change),


WMWP Tech: A Pop Culture Gathering

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is in the midst of planning a Technology Conference in the early spring, with a focus on the ways that technology, pop culture and writing can come together in the classroom. And since the inquiry focus of our WMWP site this year is our state’s shift to its own Common Core curriculum, we’re going to work to make visible the connections with the new frameworks around technology.

It’s a tall order, but I think our plan is in the right direction. Check out our “blurb.”

WMWP Digital Workshop, “Digital Composing and the Common Core: Using Pop Culture to Nurture Diverse Voices.”
February 4, 2012, 9-12:30, snow date, February 11, 2012; Place to be determined. 
How many times have you wondered just how influential popular culture is in the lives of your students? This WMWP Technology Conference will examine and then use elements from popular culture as a means for connecting with the new Common Core Frameworks and for examining the influence in the lives of young people.  The focus will be on Anchor Standards for use of digital media (#6 for Writing and #7 for Reading).  Topics from social networking spaces to media advertising to music videos will be on the agenda, as well as discussions about how to tap into cultural influences in meaningful ways, including through various rhetorical lens. Participants will also work with technology to create examples of how to use pop culture for composition in the classroom.  The workshop will be offered by members of the WMWP Technology Team.

We’re working to bring in a local youth video group to give an opening keynote address, and we are planning breakout sessions around video analysis, social networking, video gaming and more. We intend to engage teachers on a variety of levels, from learning about these topics to doing these activities themselves.

The theme of the day is inspired in part by Ernest Morrell’s keynote at the National Writing Project’s Urban Sites Conference, where he talked of the many connections/disco between the literacy in our students lives and how to tap into those experiences for meaningful work and play.


I’m pretty excited about what we have planned. If you are in our neck of the woods, I hope you can come, too.

Peace (in the event),


Why Teachers Write (for National Day on Writing)

This video montage was something we at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project created last year during a meeting in which we wrote about why we write, and then shared out. As it turns out, that is one of the theme of today’s National Day on Writing. I’m sharing it here in hopes of reminding us as teachers that writing is an important element of learning and discovery for us, too. Not just our students. We need to model writing for them and then also, talk through our understanding of why we write.
Peace (in the sharing),

Thoughts from WMWP on Common Core

We spent a good part of a Leadership Meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project yesterday, looking at and talking about the new Massachusetts Language Arts curriculum that is framed around the Common Core. Here are some notes from that discussion:

  • Most of our school districts have not yet begun to do much of anything related to the upcoming shift to the new state frameworks (mine seems to be ahead at this point, as we are using almost all of our professional development time with curriculum mapping as it relates to the shift)
  • There are “openings” for more collaboration between ELA teachers and content-area teachers, but we worry that our colleagues in the disciplines are not prepared for the ways literacy is framed to be taught “across the curriculum.” The content-area literacy ideas are bundled under the ELA frameworks, and those documents are not necessarily being given to non-ELA teachers (if there is such a thing, right?)
  • There’s an important theme of the introduction of the Massachusetts ELA document that stresses that the frameworks are not designed to dictate how things are taught, but rather, what students should be expected to have learned by the time they graduate high school. We appreciated that kind of language, as if feels more like adults talking as opposed to autocratic finger-pointing. Sort of.
  • ELA teachers are going to have to learn to teach new genres (scientific abstracts, “reading” data, understanding facets of historical documents, etc.) and shift the balance of fiction reading and fiction writing towards more informational text and expository/persuasive writing.
  • We all wonder what the assessment will look like and how that will drive the way the new curriculum is used by school districts. While the new curriculum seems on the surface to have flexibility, the nature of the assessment (our state is part of the PARCC group) will play a huge role for many schools. There was a genuine worry that financial considerations and logistical considerations will shape the assessment, rather than educational and learning practice.
  • While the Massachusetts curriculum acknowledges cultural and language diversity in its Guiding Principles, it seems like those principles get the back seat in the actual standards. This concerns our group, since one of our focus areas has been ways to support and nurture student voices. We talked about ways that a teacher could navigate through this minefield of language and expectations.
  • It was pointed out that while we often talk of the importance of an educated populace built around the three concepts of a strong democracy, pursuit of personal goals, and employment, the focus of the Common Core around college and career-ready goals says a lot about who was working on the original document.
  • While the Common Core may not be billed as a national curriculum, it sure is looking like it to us, and we noted that textbook companies are ramping up production of textbooks that tap into shared curriculum ideas among states, and we all know how often textbooks drive curriculum. That worries us, particularly if “canned curriculum” starts coming down the pike of Common Core.

It was a great discussion and we used an article from NCTE called “Keeping Students at the Center of the Common Core Classroom” by Lorna Collier (it was published in The Council Chronicle in September) as a piece of shared reading that shows ways that teachers can use and adapt the Common Core while still focusing on students as individuals. It’s a good piece to read, if you haven’t done so yet.

Peace (in the core),


“Policies Don’t Teach Kids” — Jim McDermott, part one

We taped the keynote address given by Jim McDermott to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project’s Best Practices Conference. The theme of the conference was on Massachusett’s transition to the Common Core curriculum and Jim’s talk was about how people teach kids, not policies on paper. Jim’s role in developing the current curriculum, and assessment tools, gives him a valuable perch. He also served on our state’s Board of Education, so his insider knowledge goes deep. He was funny, engaging and thoughtful as he used his own experiences in the classroom with difficult students to demonstrate how teachers can reach students as learners.

This is Part One of the keynote. I’ll share Part Two tomorrow.

Here is a quick bio of Jim McDermott:

James E. McDermott, Ed.D. , clinical educator and assistant professor at Clark University, is a former Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year who has taught English, Writing, Drama, and has coached championship teams in baseball in a career spanning 34 years working with urban students in grades 7 through 12.  He is Co-Founder and former Co-Director of the Central Massachusetts Writing Project, and for seven years served as the English Language Arts Liaison for the City of Worcester during which time he led the task force for developing an articulated k-12, portfolio-driven curriculum.  He served as a leading member of the Massachusetts State Curriculum Framework and Assessment Development Committees.

Professor McDermott has presented numerous workshops locally and nationally.  His focus is on creating classrooms that engage all students as thinking and feeling human beings through using low stakes writing to help even the most at-risk students to think deeply and to understand rigorous content.

In 2010, Jim was appointed as the first teacher to the Board of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.

Peace (in the talk),