Classroom Moment: Near-Death Experiences

You know how sometimes one topic suddenly veers off into this completely separate tangent in the classroom, and you just have to go with it for a while? We are nearing the end of reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and there is a scene where the main character almost dies in a whirlpool (only to be saved by a vision of his younger sister and the rescue by his older brother). I just casually asked if anyone had ever had a brush with water that they remembered.

Hands shot up. You would think I was in the room with near-ghosts waiting to tell their stories of how a river, or a pool, or the ocean had tried to grab life away from them. We had stories of riptides, and currents, and scary pool incidents. While it was interesting to hear all of the narratives, it also reminded me of how dangerous water can be.

Finally, after almost 20 minutes of this kind of storytelling, one of the students looked at my co-teacher and I and asked: What about you?

My colleague told a story of how he almost drowned in his pool when he came up for air and sucked in a mouth of clorine, and couldn’t breathe. I related the story of how I slipped under the ice in the river and how my older brother saved me by yanking me onto shore (just like the character in Watsons,  I realized).

One year, during 24-Comic, I wrote a graphic story of those events.

(read the rest of the story)

I didn’t mind the way our conversations moved around, away from the topic, because those stories demonstrated the power of memory (and possibly, the failure of memory, too, as no doubt some of the stories were exaggerated a bit), and you can be sure that every student connected with the character in Watsons.

Peace (in the moment),


Book Review: Racso and The Rats of NIHM

One of the all-time classic read-alouds for elementary students has to be Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, and you know, it stands up to the test of time. I remember hearing it and I still read it (to my own children, anyway, and all three have loved it). The sequel — Racso and the Rats of NIHM — is by the original author’s daughter (Jane Leslie Conly), and she picks up the energy and interest of the original without missing much of a beat.
In this novel, Timothy the mouse meets a new rat, Racso, as he is heading to school in Thorn Valley, where the rats relocated their colony in the first book. Racso is a city mouse, with a connection to the rats that only comes out later. The book circles around the ways that humans impact the environment — in this case, through the construction of a large dam that will flood the entire valley for a recreational area (and toss in some political corruption, too). Racso is determined to become a “hero,” and joins a group of rats who come up with ingenious plan to destroy the dam on its opening day.

How? They learn how to program computers and become rodent hackers. Really.

These super-smart rats teach themselves computer programming and then hack into the dam’s main computer, sabotage the dam on the opening day and hope that the damage will be so severe that the humans will give up and leave the valley alone. In the book, that does happen. In real life, that would never happen. (reader sarcasm alert)

The story moves along at a good pace, and the smart rats are always interesting to view. Casting humans as the antagonists makes a lot of sense (even my son asked why people would want to harm animals and added “I don’t really like humans right now.”) Racso is an interesting character (with a backstory about his name, which is not Rasco but Racso, which took me about a third of the book to correct, and then my son demanded that the character be called Rasco … until we learn more about his name) who evolves from being being a selfish, self-centered rat to a creature willing to sacrifice for the greater good of others.

And now, we are on to the third and last in the series: RT, Margaret and the Rats of NIHM. This is one (also by the author’s daughter) that I have never read before, so I am not sure what to expect when little kids are rescued by the rat colony and come to live with them in Thorn Valley. It seems like that might be pushing the narrative a bit too much but you never know.

Peace (in the valley),


Game Design Project: The Youtube Video Collection

Our game design website, in which we examine how we used game design in conjunction with writing and science, has a lot of videos embedded in it, as we talked with our students and us teachers about what we were doing, as we were doing it. Our goal was to capture the project in the moment, and then use those videos to share out resources.

A few teachers said they were having trouble accessing the videos (hosted at Vimeo) in their schools. This might be a firewall issue or a Flash issue. I am not sure. But what I did was uploaded the videos onto YouTube and created a playlist for sharing out the videos in that format. There more context within our website resource, I think, but the videos (particularly those of the students) might be valuable for teachers considering game design as a project in the classroom.

Go to the Game Design Project Playlist.

Peace (in the design),


Book Review: Subjects Matter (Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading)


Subjects Matter

It’s no secret that the Common Core curriculum is going to be influencing states, whether or not they come to adopt it as the framework for curriculum development. My state is part of that initial push around the Common Core, and so I am constantly on the lookout for resources that will help inform the ways I can make some shifts, particularly around the idea of content-area reading skills. Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading is another one of those valuable books that provides some scaffolding on teaching reading with an emphasis on science, social studies and math.

While authors Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman highlight strategies that can work with any kind of reading, their showcasing of about two dozen strategies and lesson plans around encouraging young readers in the maze of pulling apart of facts and data and non-fiction information from dense texts and textbooks provides a strong focus for teachers who may be used to teaching mostly fiction (ELA teachers) or not teaching specific reading skills at all (content-area teachers).

Chapters on how to read a textbook (something we teachers often take for granted in our students but our students often flounder with), expanding a class library beyond the traditional textbook, understanding the emerging critical thinking skills of middle and high school students, and building a community of learners are all ways in which Subjects Matter approaches the topic of reading. I also enjoyed the long list of book recommendations for middle and high school students that are grouped according to content areas, and there is a wide variety on the list — from novels to non-fiction books to graphic novels.

The book also includes two interesting sections at the very end: a list of the research around reading that has informed the book’s premises and testimonials from students about their reading lives. These “voices” from students are worth the read, as they talk about the frustrations they often feel in most classrooms around reading content area texts, and how some doors were finally opened.

The authors also provide plenty of charts, including this one that spells out some strategies that teachers should consider around the kinds of reading that students should be doing.



  • real books
  • teaching of reading
  • student choice of reading
  • in-class reading
  • workshops and book clubs
  • reading as a community activity
  • reading lots of books
  • reading for enjoyment
  • reading as a life activity


  • textbooks
  • assigned reading
  • reading only “the classics”
  • take-home assignments
  • whole-class discussions
  • reading as individual activity
  • many weeks on a single book
  • struggling through hard books
  • reading as a school activity

I have a lot to think about when it comes to my own approaches to reading, even in my ELA classroom. But books like Subjects Matter have me making more connections with my content-area colleagues. Our conversations are really just beginning to take shape. How about yours?

Peace (in the subjects),


A Podcast Protest Poem: We, the Pirates

Chart: “Congress, Can You Hear Us?”



We, The Pirates

The world reverted to blank canvas today;
I speak here only of the world
as it had become
so that we can wonder about the world
as it has been;

So, Pa, is this what you wanted
when you sought to close the gates
to keep the ragged troops at bay?
We stare into their eyes and see
… only us, staring back.

So, Pa, we are the pirates aboard this ship
and you seek to run the tanker aground
in order to save the gold doubloons in the captain’s pocket,
never understanding that the real treasure
is in the sails that catch the wind of the seas
that float us forward into the unknown worlds.

The world reverted to blank canvas today, Pa,
but we still pulled out our pens, and pencils, and crayons, and keyboards,
and envisioned the way the world might be
if the doors were left open to creativity and chance.

More about SOPA and the efforts to either stop or at least modify it is here.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

Peace (in the protest),


The Games of The Hunger Games


Yesterday, I reviewed The Hunger Games and I was exploring the Scholastic book site where writer Suzanne Collins has plenty of interesting videos about the books and her inspiration as a writer. I also noticed a link for some Hunger Game-inspired games, so I figured: I might as well check it out. There are two games on the site, both of which are really just advertising for the book.

hunger games

The first, Trial by Fire, is a Choose Your Own Adventure game, which is kind of interesting since I was just re-exploring that genre last week as part of our blogging series around Mentor Texts for the Digital Writing Workshop. Here, you choose a name and you are the character in the Hunger Games, making decisions as the clock ticks down on you. The music made my heart beat faster, pointing once again to the power of all the multimedia elements for website design. The quick pace and the connections to the story were well-done, and I bookmarked it as a good example of an adventure story with multiple paths.

hunger games2

The second, Tribute Trials, is a quiz-style game, in which you are asked a series of questions on survival, and you are awarded characteristics — such as strength, courage, charisma — that are then tallied up at the end of the game. If you have enough of what you need (I never quite figured that out), you stay alive. I didn’t. I died.

The two games were nicely constructed, with direct ties to the novels. I imagine some of my students would enjoy them. It made me think a bit about how publishers are marketing to young people now, using game theory to spark an interest in the book. I wonder, too, if the games here would have been as interesting if I had not read the book. Would I care? It seemed like the content of the games were designed to tap into what I already knew about The Hunger Games series, but with the movie coming out soon, I suppose eyeballs will be searching the Web for Hunger Games content.

Also, I was thinking: how could I get my students to create companion games for the stories they are writing? What would that look like? Hmmmm.

Peace (in the games),


Book Review: The Hunger Games


I know I am late to this party, but I finally (finally!) read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins the other day. I am not sure why it has taken me this long. Goodness knows I have had plenty of students reading the series, and I have almost been part of any number of teacher discussions about the book. My son had the book, my wife brought the book home from her school library … getting my hands on the book has not been a problem.

I guess it comes down to this: I am not a huge fan of Young Adult dystopian fiction. I tried The Maze Runner a few years ago, and lost interest after the first few chapters. And you would think that given my high interest in science fiction that I would buy into the dystopian setup with no problem and dive right in. But The Hunger Games were still out there, waiting.

Now, I understand the fuss.

I won’t need to rehash the plot, I suspect, but I do want to point out what I consider the strength of this novel: character. It’s the voice of the main character, Katniss, that stuck with me and kept drawing me back into the novel. Her development and her experiences, and her reaction to the experiences, were powerfully drawn. I cared about her early in the book (when she volunteers for her little sister, she had me) and Collins gives her flaws and strengths, and courage and doubts. Having such a strong, intelligent girl as the protagonist made for a thrilling reading.

And there is the whole media element. It’s hard not to think, as the reader, that we are really just another viewer of the mayhem and death unfolding on the Hunger Games field, and that if we could send a “tribute” gift to Katniss to allow her to survive, we probably would. Collins has a nice touch as writer, to keep that audience both invisible and make us feel like we are one of them. You can almost hear the calls for more death in your head as you read — an unsettling experience that says a lot about the ways in which media infiltrates our lives.

Which brings me to the violence. I hate to sound like a prude, and I would never advocate keeping the book out of the hands of readers, but our school has a book club for sixth graders that has been reading this series (and is organizing a trip to see the movie when it comes out this year). I kept having trouble balancing the violence and gore with our school’s theme of being Peacebuilders. In other words, I would never teach this book as a class novel. (My wife reminded me that Lord of the Flies is violent, too). Of course, I suspect the violent element is what is keeping many of the boys involved in the book, so who am I took complain?

The other day, I was reading The Hunger Games in class during quite reading time, and a lot of students were quite interested that I was finally reading it. And then, I saw a student from a few years ago in our school (he is part of a multi-grade ski club) and he was one of the biggest fans of the series (except for the third book … he didn’t like it), and kept at me all year to read The Hunger Games. When I told him that I finally was into the book, he gave me this huge smile and shouted out: “Way to go, Mr. H! It’s about time!”


Peace (in the games),
PS — I have been watching some of the small videos of Collins, talking of the book series, and this one seemed interesting. She talks about the classical inspirations for the novels.


Keyboarding Skills and the Common Core


You might not even notice it, tucked away as it is within one of the strands of the Writing elements of the Common Core, but there is a sentence in there that has me wondering. It reads, “…demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.”

The other day, I had my students type out a reading response on the computers, in part so that I could (again) remind them about how to leverage the tools of Microsoft Word (spelling, grammar, formatting) for their own writing. The response was to a standardized testing piece of reading (about siblings) and they had done a draft version the day before in their Writing Notebooks.

On this day, they began to type and I was curious to see their skills at the keyboard. It wasn’t so great. Some students took almost 45 minutes to write a single paragraph. Most were hovering over their keyboards (ergonomic alert!) with a single finger jabbing at keys, their eyes darting from paper to computer. When I asked how many had ever used any kind of keyboarding system, only a few raised their hands. Most of the programs were online games.


We don’t do our students any service by leaving out keyboarding from the school curriculum, and the ideal age is around second grade. I’ve talked about this with our principal on several occasions, and he agrees, but the money isn’t there to fit in a keyboarding class and the idea pales in comparison to the work we need to be doing around writing, reading and math (as evidence by our state scores). I try to make the point early and often, to students and parents, that keyboarding skills are helpful and for students with some writing challenges (particularly around spelling), it may open up doors to publishing that writing by hand won’t.


And there it is, in the Common Core and our own Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. In fourth grade, students should be able to produce one full page of writing in a single sitting; in fifth grade, it is two pages; from sixth grade on up, it is three pages. If our work the other day is any indication, it would take hours for my students to type out three pages of original work.

The question of why that standard is there is not quite obvious, but I suppose we can make the assumption that whatever assessment (PARCC or whatever) coming down the road will have some sort of extended writing pieces in which students will have to spend a considerable amount of time at their keyboard. Maybe even hours. Be ready for it!

Peace (in the keys),


Book Review: I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar

I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar
Just bought this book; it’s hilarious!  Quite a few of the photos are of inappropriate apostrophe usage; aaaaargh!
Buy on Amazon or join the facebook group

This is one of those stocking stuffer books that gets passed around the family for laughs. For us, with two English teacher parents who have traveled to other countries and poked fun at English translations, I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar is a riot of misspellings, errors in punctuation and odd meanings and word choices that will have you scratching your head. The book evolved from a Facebook group in which users sent in photographs of signs using bad grammar and spelling, and the editor — Sharon Eliza Nichols — uses sarcasm to showcase the very-public errors.

In here, you will see signs for things like “no pakring” and “personnel watermelons” and there is even an entire section on how learning institutions, on their own signs, have more than their share of errors. Talk about publishing to the world! Most of the errors are due to that old friend, the apostrophe, which seems to float all over the place, making mischief with phrases (“Put Trash In It’s Place” and “Please Tuck You’re Laces In!”.

Listen, I made plenty of my own errors in my writing, so I understand the signmaker’s dilemma well enough. But it reminds us that proofreader’s work is never done.

Peace (in the grammar),