… And Miles To Go … (before the school year ends)


flickr photo shared by *s@lly* under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

A good friend of mine asked me in a social media space if my school year was over yet. A lot of my connected colleagues are university professors, so many of them just got past their “crazy zone” of activities. (or they are correcting final papers before grade submittal deadlines)

Me?

Not. Hardly. There. Yet.

We still have a month or so to go, even with an early year thanks to a slow New England winter, and we have lots of things yet to be accomplished with my sixth graders.

Let’s see …

  • We have a digital picture book project in the mix right now, where they are creating a story about their years in elementary school;
  • We have an argumentative writing piece to undertake next week, which is designed around synthesizing the reading of three texts and developing an essay with claims/counterclaims;
  • We have a digital writing portfolio to assemble in Google Sites (I wrote about part of this project over at Middleweb);
  • We have an idea brewing for creating a Fan Site for some topic of their choosing (novel, author, movie, television show, etc.);
  • And daily writing and reading of novels, too.

Yeah. We’re going to get all that done, and more, too. In the middle of the day, when kids are getting all summer-brained and showing odd end-of-year-social-itis, I don’t know how we will get it all done.

But we will. We’ll get it done. We still have miles to go before ….


flickr photo shared by alt1040 under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Margaret Atwood: How Technology Impacts Storytelling

I found this video and find it quite interesting. Writer Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on how technology shapes our writing process and our conceptions storytelling (or not) connects with a lot of my wondering out loud about the ways that writing is changing, and shifting, in the modern era (but I am open to the argument that nothing is changing at all).

See what you think ….

Peace (in the story about stories),
Kevin

Channeling Anger into Song: Build U Up Tear U Down

When I first started writing songs nearly 30 years ago (yikes!), it was all about politics and anger (it was the Reagan years). I wrote songs protesting the military actions in Central America, about the trickle down policies of the land, about corruption at its deepest political core. I would play at coffee hours and open mic nights. I recorded a lot of songs on my old four-track music recorder.

At some point, I sort of forced myself to make the shift into more personal songs for myself, or I wrote songs that could be played by a rock and roll party band. I never forgot my political protest roots, really, but I tempered my art with peace, love and some understanding. (Maybe that is a symptom of growing up or something).

But the current US presidential race has me pissed off all over again, channeling those early years of frustration in the political sphere. While I don’t name Trump in this song I wrote the other day and recorded yesterday as a demo (just me and my guitar), it’s all about him, particularly his use of language and rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Words matter. We tell this to students all the time, and we teach it to them as the heart of writing. Words matter. What you say and what you write has meaning and depth. Then someone like Trump takes the stage and spews off venomous words and divisive ideas intended to splinter us, not unite us. I can live with political differences (many of my friends lean way right … we have interesting conversations) but I can’t live with vitriol. And Trump is now backed by a major political party.

Yeah, I’m angry and it’s only May.

I am hoping we knock Trump and his supporters down a few pegs with our votes and reactions. (I am not advocating physical confrontation here, of course.)

The chorus to the song goes:

You may think you’re on top but we don’t care
We’ve got our eyes on the prize so best beware
You can say what you want but we’re not amused
Every word that you say comes back on you

Peace (brings us together),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Fostering Fan Fiction

sol16

Can I confess? I was inspired to do this writing activity …. by PARCC. There, I said it. I never would have even thought of writing a sentence like that. But, it’s true. Our state has merged some PARCC elements into our state testing this year, and the PARCC Literary Task reminded me of Fan Fiction, and so …

Let me back up. My students are deep into their independent reading books this time of year. I give them a good 20 minutes every class period to stretch out around the room and read, quietly. Even in May, with the end of the year jitters in the air, they revel in their quiet reading mode, and complain loudly if they don’t get that time. How great is that, eh?

We’ve been doing writing about reading activities, but the other day, a few weeks after getting them ready for the state ELA test, one element of the new PARCC elements has stayed with me as something rather interesting. In the task, students are given a passage from a novel or short story, and then they are to either continue the scene or do some variation of the story, paying attention to character or setting or whatever.

It dawned on me one day that this writing assignment was really just a twist on Fan Fiction, and that I could easily get students thinking in terms of the ways that technology and social spaces encourage readers to become writers. It also harkened back to a keynote address by Antero Garcia at a local technology conference, where he extolled the Connected Learning virtues of Fan Fiction communities. That planted a seed that just needed time to grow.

So yesterday, I gave a mini-lesson to my students on what Fan Fiction is (a fair number knew the term but not too much about what it was) and how it works. I mentioned how some Fan Fiction writers connect with others in online spaces (like one of the Harry Potter site that has 80,000 fan fiction stories) around shared interests of books and authors,  and then:

  • write prequels
  • write sequels
  • spin off minor characters
  • create alternative histories
  • create alternative story paths
  • mashup characters and settings from different novels

So, we wrote, and then, instead of sharing out the stories they wrote, we shared out the technique they used to write their Fan Fiction stories, and the struggles they encountered (or not) in doing so. It was such an interesting discussion, and I think many now have their interest piqued about Fan Fiction. Certainly, all have now experienced it as a reader/writer.

Side Note 1: So, I did not get into some of the adult themes that emerge for some Fan Fiction sites, such as sexual trysts and other, eh, explicit materials. And I realize a day late that I should have broached the copyright conundrum (is it protected derivative work?) of using someone else’s material for your own writing, and publishing it to the public view. Obviously, this did not pertain to our writing activity, where the stories were in their writing notebooks, but still …

Side Note 2: I wrote, too, of course, taking a minor character from the book I was just finishing up — The Boy Who Lost Fairyland — and creating a short story that could have happened in the book during a time gap when the character was “off stage.” The character is a magical Gramophone, who spins records to communicate, and I had the character, Scratch, meet with a mysterious character who is a DJ who spins discs. You can see where my story was going, right? Scratch gets scratched into a little hip-hop in the Fairyland. It was blast, writing it.

Peace (among the fans),
Kevin

Exploring the Muse: SongMap

SongMap

At the DS106 Daily Create the other day, we were given the task of creating a “hand drawn” map. In other words, get away from the computer and make something on paper. I’m glad I did that because this map got me thinking metaphorically about how I go about writing songs. Plus, I got to poke fun at myself and my own wanderings in this imaginary world where I hope melodies and rhythm will come together.

Peace (on the map),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Amulet Vol. 7 (Firelight)

 

Kazu Kibuishi continues his extraordinary artistic run of deep, rich graphic storytelling with the seventh book in the Amulet series. This book — called Firelight — is both incredibly to look at, with the graphic form, and to read, with its ever-widening storytelling.

If I am looking for a prime example of how an artist is using the graphic novel medium to spin a narrative, I turn to Kibuishi’s Amulet series, which often falls under the radar because it is aimed at young readers and not necessarily adults (although it is a New York Times bestseller, so maybe that statement isn’t quite correct).

Here, the merging and diverting stories of female protagonist Emily, who has become a Stonekeeper, a source of magical powers. But there is some nefarious schemes at work behind the source of that magic, and Emily is slowly getting sucked into the unknown. Meanwhile, the boy protagonist — Navin, Emily’s brother– is connecting with a rebellion against the Elf King, who may or may not be part of Amulet secrets.

Lots of interesting characters, and strange journeys into the memories and the past, as well as beautifully drawn artwork that forces you into the world of Amulet, make this series one worth checking out. While this seventh volume does not contain any huge surprises, it advances the story along quite nicely. I think Kibuishi has ten volumes planned, so we are moving towards the last third of the story. Books come out every few years, so this is taking a long time to unspool. Which is fine.

Some fan made this book trailer.

Peace (go deep),
Kevin

When Frustration Hits the Wall of Resilience


flickr photo shared by octaviosn under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I like to think I am always open to new technology for my young writers, and I am not afraid to beta test or try out new platforms that show possibilities for my students. I do make sure I try things out first on my own. As a sort of mental checklist, I consider a few things before bringing a new tech idea into the classroom:

  • Does the technology compliment or enhance the writing of my students?
  • Does the technology provide for collaborative elements, or at least, allow for the possibilities of connected writing?
  • Is there a low frustration threshold for learning the new technology so that learners across the spectrum can feel successful?
  • Is it free? And if it is free, does it have advertising?

Now, I am always open to some frustration on the part of my students. That’s how many of them learn. That’s how I learn. You, too, probably. We run into a wall, find a workaround, share the workaround with others, and push forward.  Sometimes, I am the one who has to guide my students on that path. But by this time of year, most of them can do that on their own. Or turn to each other.

They’re learning perseverance and resilience when it comes to the limitations of technology. On a side note, this resilience does not always transfer to other content areas, such as math, where we see too much “giving up” or blind “pushing through” on the part of many students. Some theories about the increase in this helplessness focus on family life (helicopter parents) and standardized testing (there is one right answer, kid). We’re all, in education, still working on this.


flickr photo shared by El Chepi under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

So, now to the present. My students have been piloting a site designed to support writing and publishing. The site has cool potential. I don’t want to go too deep into the context or specifics because of the various networked connections of the project, due to the early stages of things and it is not important to my story here, but I reached a point the other day where frustration hit the wall of resilience, and I did something I rarely do: I backtracked.

The technology got into the way of the writing. This is the best way for me to put it. The technology got into the way of the writing.

I spent entire class periods, scrambling from one student to another with hands raised, troubleshooting what should have been easy fixes, only to discover there was nothing easy about the fix. I spent my time dealing with the technology, and not with the writing and ideas, and by the end of the day, I had had enough. This is not how I teach. I don’t think I have ever abandoned a technology in the midst of using it in the classroom — usually, I vet it pretty well — but this situation presented too many problems, too much of the time. I came close to pulling the plug.


flickr photo shared by rosipaw under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

The next day, after a night of thinking of little else and then letting those who run the platform know about my decision the next morning, I decided to offer up some alternative paths to students (including staying with the existing technology, if they chose, and there were some embedded incentives within the platform on why they would do that). Suddenly, putting that choice into their hands got the whole project back on track once again in a very positive way.

Still, I am left with lingering teacher doubts. Should I have kept at it? Did we “persevere” in the face of difficulties? Or did we give up too soon? I’m comfortable with my decision here, but I still have those questions looming around in my head. That’s why I am writing this blog post, after all.

I think resilience means finding ways around, or through, the walls that emerge in our learning process. Yet resilience does not mean crashing headfirst in the wall, again and again, with the same results (and a bad headache). Maybe knowing where resilience ends, and where the new starting line begins, is one of the keys here.

POST-BLOG-UPDATE-NOTE: A day later (I wrote this original post the other day and stuck it in my draft bin to mull it over) … First of all, those who run the platform have been very support of the decision to give the option to students to abandon the platform. They want us to put educational needs of students first, even if it meant disrupting the beta testing. They completely understand. Second, surprisingly, many of the students chose to STAY with the platform, even with all of its problems and technical glitches, and the choices I presented to them. I find that decision so interesting and I look forward to seeing the projects now underway make their way to completion in the coming weeks. Perhaps my students are teaching me a lesson about resilience.

Peace (in, and through, and out, and around),
Kevin

 

Upon Reflection: Reading Literature in a Digital Age

FutureLearn

I’ve long been intrigued by the ways in which technology is changing the ways (or not) we read and write. When someone mentioned a site called FutureLearn, and its free MOOC-like open course offerings, and a six week class called Reading Literature in a Digital Age, I was curious about the exploration.

So I dove in.

I’m glad I did.

Although some of the course material moved away from my main interest point, particularly as we explored modernity in Ezra Pound poetry, I kept finding my way back to the topic of digital reading in fascinating ways. The course mixed short video lectures by Professor Philipp Schweighauser (at the University of Babel), articles and inquiries, comments by participants and short quizzes of understanding.

WWWeb as Remediation Sponge

Here is a list of reading techniques we explored over the six weeks. Some I knew (but maybe with another name) and some I was only vaguely familiar with.

  • Hyper Reading (the way we scan digital text in an often non-linear fashion, seeking information that meets our needs)
  • Social Reading (annotating text with others in online spaces, so that the crowd understanding of a document can lead to a larger understanding of a text)
  • Close Reading (looking at the text and only the text, with very little context outside of what is on the page or the screen.)
  • Distant Reading (analyzing multiple texts with algorithms to determine patterns over time or central points that might be obscured by a closer look)
  • Surface Reading (examining the materiality of the text itself — the physical object — as well as all of the surrounding elements of the main text, such as title pages, copyright information, layout design, etc.)

At one point, we were asked to write a short essay on which of these reading strategies we most use, and I wrote this, thinking as much about my students as about myself as a writer:

These days, I am most attuned to the idea of “surface reading” because I am intrigued by the changes afoot in the world of literacies. The materiality of the “text” is an interesting notion, made even more so by the ways that we interact with screens in our daily lives (for good or for ill). As a teacher of young students, I am always struck by the disconnect between the literacies of our education system (paper-centric) and the literacies of their lives outside of school (screen-centric) and struggle with finding a bridge between the two. Therefore, paying close attention — “surface reading” — to how the materiality shapes our reading experiences, through media and through interactive elements and through access (or who does not have access) must become part of the conversations and considerations of expanded notions of literacy. I am also personally intrigued when discovering a new kind of text — who wrote it, who published it, how was it put together. Can I replicate it? With “surface reading”, I have an in-road to understanding the text in whatever form it might take. And if I can understand it, if I can peek beneath the covers to see how it works, maybe I can replicate it (remediate it?) myself as a writer, and then teach that new kind of writing/composing to my students, too. Giving them a chance to move from consumer to creator — sparking agency — is always my goal.

What the course reminded me of is how literacies is in the midst of a shift, and yet that shift is anchored in the traditional forms of texts in many ways. I appreciated the deep dives into various ways of looking at texts in various forms, and came out of the course with a better understanding of how researchers and lay readers approach texts in different ways, and seek different elements of understanding.

new media meets old media

I have now signed up for another course in a few weeks, called Teaching Literacy through Film. Wanna join me?

Peace (it’s in the text),
Kevin

Getting Groans and Writing Poems (for Two Voices)

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

I knew this assignment would elicit some groans. And so it did. We were nearing the end of our poetry unit with Poems for Two Voices, and with our state math test on the horizon, I decided to have them write Poems for Two Voices on a math theme.

Poems for Two Mathematical Voices

You’d have thought I had told them to stick their toes into a vat of boiling tar. It’s funny how much kids create these illusionary walls between curricular areas. What do you mean, we are writing in social studies? Why are we learning argument writing in science? Why is math the topic of our poetry?

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.17.18 AM

But the reality is, we live in an interdisciplinary world, right? So, the more we do a bit of everything — particularly literacy — in the content areas, the better off our students will be.

Thus: poems with a math concept.

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In reality (teacher moment), the writing of the poems became another way for me (in support of our math teacher) to go over math vocabulary in a way beyond the textbook. I won’t say too many of the poems were deep explorations of mathematical themes (far too many were addition vs subtraction … boring) but learning a new form of poem with an underlying element like math does make for something different.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 5.19.13 AM

So, I ignore the groans as they write the poems! And then, they sat with partners and read their poems (as these should be) with partners to get a feel and sense of the flow.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

What Diversion Sounds Like (Masters of War)

The other morning, I had my list of tasks to do. You know, writing and other things that I needed to get done. Then, along comes Simon on Twitter, referencing Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, with a call to remix or remediate or something, and there I am, remembering the day I bought Dylan’s vinyl Biograph box set and heard Masters of War for the first time on my headphones. I was 19 years old, just starting out with songwriting, and that box set became a bible of songcraft to me.

And Masters of War .. that one song haunted me for weeks on end. I could hear its words in my head at night when I slept and its phrasing crept into many of my songs that year, when I focused on writing political songs in the era of Reagan. I even wrote a song for a band that I just formed (our name was Behind Bars) that was an echo of Masters of War. Mine, about US intervention policy in Central America, was called Another War. (I am still digging around for a version of it).

So Simon reels me back in to that time period of my life, and I wondered if I could do a version of the Dylan song in Soundtrap and invite others to add to it.

My initial goal (now that my list of tasks for the morning was kaput) was to do something sparse with Dylan’s song and keep open musical space for others. An hour or two later, I realized I had set forth a version with tension and very little space for others but I could not find a way to remove sounds without messing with the urgency of what I was creating. Still, Ron came on board, adding the very interesting voice of emergency (This is NOT a drill) and some guitar riffs, and Bryan arrived later, with even more guitar flourishes.

The invite to others is still open. We’ll see what happens.

Peace (it sounds nothing like War),
Kevin

PS – this version of Masters of War by Ed Sheeran is a new favorite of mine.