Lost Piano: A Digital Poem

I don’t know if you saw the news reports of the high school student whose art project for his college applications was placing a piano on a high sand bar off Miami (his father helped). They didn’t tell anyone about it, so that caused quite a stir in the media. Photographs show this lonely piano sitting there, in the middle of the bay. And, in my imagination stirred, too, as I wondered about the beauty of a piano sitting atop the ocean (even at high tide, apparently).

Before I knew the real story, I wrote this poem, and then created it as a digital story poem. Tomorrow, I’ll share my writing process and the rough draft work I did on the poem. (lots of cross-offs, restarts, etc.)

Peace (on the shoulders of the world),
Kevin

Considering the Live Performance in the Digital Age

1284418067_4972.jpg

When I was in eighth grade, I think it was, I attended a summer arts camp and remember clearly a performance of musicians from China performing traditional Chinese music. I remember it because at the time, I found it so incredibly boring that I squirmed in my seat and thought time had slowed to a crawl. This was music I had never heard before and its strange timbre, rhythm and sounds jarred me. Why were they making us sit though this, I wondered?

Now, today, I remember it because those sounds of those musicians and those odd-looking instruments still live in my head. That first exposure to music from Asia made its mark, even in my own reluctant head, and I can now appreciate as an adult what I didn’t appreciate as a teenager: the talent of the musicians and the breadth of music in this world (beyond Led Zeppelin and Charlie Parker).

I was thinking of this yesterday as we brought all of our sixth and fifth grade students to a live performance of Three Cups of Tea yesterday. It is a one-man show from the American Place Theater/Literature to Life series, with actor Curtis Neilson, and the audience imagination plays a role here, too (as Neilson told us in a discussion after the performance, about the partnership of actor and audience). The audience must imagine and believe. Luckily, all of my students read the young adult version of Three Cups of Tea last year and some even got to meet Greg Mortenson at a local college after a fundraising activity we did at our school. (The fifth graders will read it this year). My students last year also did a Glogster project around the book, its themes of making a difference in the world, and the character traits of Mortenson.

Discussing the performance with my students after the show, they mostly gave it a thumbs-down (“boring” and “I got sleepy” and “why didn’t they have more props” were common remarks), but I am convinced it because they — us, the audience — had to work, as the stage consisted of just the actor and a few simple props, and the words from the book. Nothing else. We had to imagine the invisible actors, and the scenery, and come into the story. The opening scene of Greg getting lost in on the mountains, which starts the whole story, involved the actor in the dark theater, walking through the audience as he laments the death of his sister and his inability to finish his climb to the top of K2.

(And just to be clear — I thought the actor did a fantastic job, using his voice and actions and the words of the text to draw us into the interesting elements of the story and the emotional part of the story, too.)

I get the feeling that entertainment for too many of my students means “feed me what I need to know, and make it quick.” Or maybe I am thinking this  because I am reading the novel, Feed by M.T. Anderson, and that constant flow of data and entertainment is on my mind.  The connected world of mobile devices, gaming and wired computers often means instant gratification (and I know I sound like a digital naysayer here, and you should know, I am not). They have that expectation now, I think. To sit for almost an hour in a dark theater and be transported by one man on the stage …. they are not there yet and it requires a skill of patience few of them seem to have. A show of hands by my class afterward indicates that very few have ever even seen a live stage production of any kind.

So, why force them?

We sort of knew this might be the case. I go back to my own experience, with the Chinese music. Our hope as teachers is that this performance, and other experiences that bring them outside their comfortable circle, will enrich their lives, in ways that might not unfold for years down the line. We want them to see the possibilities of art, and drama, and music. Yes, I tell them: one actor on stage can transform an audience, if the story is powerful enough.

We need to expose our students to as much of the world of art as we can, and plant the seeds for creativity. It might not bloom for many years. But, it may bloom and that is enough reason in itself.

Peace (on the stage),
Kevin

Listening to (Invented) Words


An apt metaphor for my classroom yesterday was a busy bee hive, as my students zoomed around to different stations that we had set up to share out their invented words. Along the rim of the classroom, I had set up stations of laptops that were on our Crazy  Collaborative Dictionary (see yesterday’s post). On the blackboard, I had four large pieces of chart paper, where they were writing their words and definitions. And at my desk, I had a podcast station set up for recording their words and definitions.

I was monitoring this all with the eyes on the back of my head, as I did the main recording of the podcasts with Audacity, and then quickly converted the files into MP3, and then uploaded into my Box. net sharing account.

It’s on days like this that I realize why some teachers might worry about moving such technology projects into their classrooms. There is a bit of controlled mayhem that goes on. But the kids were great, and there was lots of laughing and talking about words they were inventing. We had a long conversation in one class about how they might actually get one of their words into the real dictionary (not just our online one).

Why do we do this activity? As part of our study of how words come into our English language, I want them to understand that language is not static; it is always growing, shifting, changing. Words reflect our times. The act of invention here is a fun activity, but in the world, words are invented for things that have a new nuance, or represent a shift in thinking, or are adapted for something new. Words are not shackles that hem in our thinking. Words are part of the vibrancy of our lives.

I also gave a mini-lesson on wikis, since we use Wikispaces as the home of our dictionary work: what wikis are and how to use them and how they can foster collaborative writing. That discussion touched on Wikipedia, of course, but also Wikianswers and now, Wikileaks. My hope is that the word “wiki” now has some context for them when they hear it referenced in the news. And of course, we talked about the word “wiki” itself (Hawaiian, meaning “quick”).

When I get the 2011 Crazy Dictionary up to speed (and also the larger Crazy Dictionary featuring words from 2005-2011), I’ll share it out, but I thought it would be fun to share a folder of some of the podcasting. I really enjoy hearing them saying their words, particularly as the audio files will become a permanent part of our growing dictionary project.

Peace (in the wordy words),
Kevin

Vertical Collaboration and the Crazy Dictionary

Frindle: Words from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

Today, we will be jumping on our class wiki site and students will be adding newly-invented words to an ongoing collaborative project: constructing a dictionary of made-up words. It’s called collaborative because since 2005, my students have each been adding one or two words every year to the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary wiki site (and adding podcasts the last few years). We now have about 500 words on the site, and another 80 or so will be added to the mix this year.

What I find interesting is that many of my current students have older siblings who also took part in the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary, which means they are collaborating across time. This is one of the beauties of an online space – the collaboration can go horizontal (across class) and vertical (across time).

They began their work last week as I read parts of the book Frindle by Andrew Clements to them. A fair number had read the book when they were younger, but there are some wonderful sections in there about the power of words and language. We then talked about William Shakespeare and his impact on our language even today. We spoke about the framework of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and other plays, and the foundation they have laid for so many plot devices in movies and books today. And we talked about how Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words and phrases to our language, finding gaps between what he wanted to say and what words were available to express that meaning.

I have shared some of the newest words in the Oxford English Dictionary from 2010:

And showcased some past words from the Crazy Dictionary:

Today, they will get on the wiki, add their words, create a podcast of their word and definition, create a wall chart of their new words and begin to have fun with this invented language.

Who knows what words will emerge today?

Peace (in the language),
Kevin

The Flow, The Rain and the Book: Glogster Presentation Tools

Our kids have been fully immersed in Glogster.edu lately, as I introduced them to the site and got them experimenting, and then my science teaching colleague had them using their accounts to create projects around engineering bridge design, and now I have them working on some independent book poster projects.

One thing we did do this year is we highly and repeatedly stressed design elements: use of color, use of animation, use of font, use of clip art, etc. Both of us showed them Glogs that were well-designed and not-so-well-designed, and sparked discussions about “what worked and what didn’t work” for us as viewers of the work. We both think these discussions and reminders have had an impact, as we see a higher quality of work going on this year with Glogster (where students can easily get too wrapped up in the “this is cool” factor).

Not long ago, Glogster rolled out some ways to collect glogs in your “classrooms” and present them as a entire package. The other day, I started to play around with the three tools: the book, the rain and the flow. They are basically the same idea, but with slight little twists.

If you are on Glogster.edu, you can find the Presentations link right on your dashboard. It’s pretty easy to set up a Presentation, as you just drag Glogs from your classrooms into a tool box and choose the style of presentation you want. The site then kicks out the link and embed code for you. This is one of those innovations where teachers asked, and Glogster responded.

Here are some of the Bridge Projects in each of the formats.

The Flow
You need Flash plugin!
The Rain
You need Flash plugin
The Book
(which doesn’t come with embed code, I guess. That’s because it shows a full scale version of each glog in order.)

Personally, I like The Flow version the best, although I can see the appeal of The Rain, as glogs drop from the sky in a very dramatic way. The Book is neat and straightforward, and would be good for class presentations. What I like is this will easily allow me to share our glogs at our own online sites, for parents and students to view.
Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

Dear Reader, We Write the Book of our Times

The latest activity in the Edublog Teachers Challenge is to consider our blog readers (that would be you, by the way — we were talking about you. We only said nice things). It’s easy to get wrapped up in the writing sometimes and forget that there are readers out there (have I mentioned how nice you look in that shirt today?) who read and sometimes write (make sure you keep a smile on today, even if it gets rough) at our blogs. We’re partners, often — the writers and the readers (so thank you for visiting).

I woke this morning thinking of this idea of visitors here (again, that would be you and don’t worry, the dream was purely platonic) and how nice it really is that anyone spends time to write with me. I do write for myself — I would write even if this blog were unplugged — but there is something nice knowing that there are a handful of folks who wonder what I am up (sorry if my wandering brain gets you dizzy, reader. It’s the writer in me).

So, I wrote you a poem, dear reader. I wrote you a poem to thank you for being on this journey with me (here, have a cup of coffee and a muffin and stay for a minute) and to show some appreciation for your end of this conversation (sometimes, you are silent, thinking, but that’s OK — I’m like that too, sometimes, on my own journeys).

Thank you.

Writing the Book of Our Times
(listen to the podcast)

Imagine my surprise in finding you
arriving here, so unexpected,
bundled up against the flow of ceaseless information,
seeking a place to land as temporary shelter,
seeking out a conversation.

Come in, dear reader,
and share this fire with me;
I’m tossing sparks into the flames
in hopeful optimism that change is afoot
out there –
it’s something we can feel, if not always see,
and it needs to be named.
I need your help, so perhaps your arrival is fortuitous,
a breath of air on the embers.

Ignore the rapping on the basement door.
I’ve locked up the Spam King and all of his cronies
trying to sell me their trinkets and lies
while scraping my blog for ideas –
they are thieves and scoundrels,
and I am sorry
if you have ever found yourself in their company.
Dear reader, you deserve better.

Take off your coat and grab an idea;
Feed the fire with me,
and tell me a story of your journeys
as I will tell you of mine;
Combined, we’ll write the book of our times.

Peace (in the poems),
Kevin

Reading Assessments: Time (Well) Spent?

Reading Assessment Levels 2011
We are in our second year of conducting Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Reading Assessments as part of a Literacy Initiative. While most teachers have a class of about 20 students to assess, I teach 77 students. I’ve been keeping track of the time I have had to spend on average for each assessment because the F/P folks say you should be able to winnow it down to about 20 minutes per student, once you know the system and have a good baseline for beginning (based on the assessment from the prior year).

If you are unfamiliar with Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark:

  • There is a box of levels books
  • Each level has both fiction and non-fiction text
  • A student reads aloud a portion and then read the rest, silently
  • The teacher marks for accuracy during read-aloud
  • A discussion follows around comprehension related to information from the book, about the book and beyond the book (inference)
  • You find an independent reading level, an instructional reading level and a hard reading level

But I am still finding it takes about 40 minutes per student. And even when I received some help from one our most experienced reading assessment specialists in our school, she was able to assess just four students in three hours time. So I know it is not just me. The silent reading of the upper level texts takes some time for kids, and you can’t rush them. You just have to wait them out.

A little calculation here: 77 students x 40 minutes = 3080 minutes, or a little over 51 hours of reading assessment testing. For me and my students. That means time I am not in the classroom, either, since although F/P folks say you can set up in the back of the classroom while the other students are working independently, that doesn’t work for older students. The readers become very self-conscious and the rest of the students try to listen in, ruining the element of unknown text.

Yesterday, I finally finished my last student (and I can say this, with all the irony you can read into it, given my online connections: I am sick and tired of hearing about the Internet, which is the topic of one of the higher level books in the assessment. I am also a bit weary of tsunamis, and living through the Blitz, and many of the other fictional stories in the set.)

So, is this data collection valuable?

Yes, definitely. Not only am I getting a much deeper glance into the individual reader, I am seeing the bigger picture based on the data collection (which I am collating with other data points, such as our state’s standardized testing results). If you look at the graph above, you can see that most of my students are solidly in the right instructional level. I now have a subset of struggling readers and, just as important, a group of readers that need more challenges.

Yesterday, for example, I had two readers who were like mirror opposites of each other. One of them read fluently, with almost no mistakes or errors, but then could barely answer any of the comprehension questions. The other stumbled as they read, made many errors, but then soared through the comprehension questions, for the most part. Which is the stronger reader? It depends, right? But I now have a much clearer picture of them as readers, thanks to the assessment.

I also have a clearer picture now of which students are struggling in sixth grade. Of course, I already knew much of that, based on work in class and discussions with colleagues, but here, the data fine-tunes those insights and should give me specific areas that I can work on with those students in the lower brackets of reading levels. (We’re still in training on how to interpret all of the errors in the system, however. That work will lead to development of intervention for us in the upper grades; reading intervention programs are now confined to the lower grades)

And, as we move farther into the year, particularly around independent reading, I can have a much better informed say in what level of books they should be choosing, based on the Instructional Levels. I have a basis for saying “you know, that book looks a little too easy for you” or “that book may be a bit hard, but give it a try and see how you do.”

The downsides of all this, however, is that during the assessments, I am not in the classroom during those dozens of hours of testing (although I grab students during non-class times and I have had substitutes and fellow educators fill in, and two colleagues helped with some of the assessments), and so the pace of learning slows during these cycles (We’re supposed to do it again in June) and unfortunately, there is no extension of the F/P reading system in the regional middle school where my students head next year. Last year, they told me they didn’t even want to see the data I had collected (that still irks me).

But yesterday, in the hallway, our principal stopped me and said that may be changing. The Literacy Initiative and its professional development components are now extending up through eighth grade (as opposed to stopping with us here in sixth grade).

So, there is some hope.

Peace (in the data),
Kevin

The Rock and Roll Brainstorm

Maybe the title of this post should be in this list. I was challenged by the drummer in our new rock band to come up with some “name ideas” for what to call ourselves. I demurred at first, and then thought: what the heck, this could be fun.

I’m not sure any of these names will make the cut but it was interesting trying to come up with a moniker for a band that is interesting and conveys a meaning of something cool. Some of the names just came out of thin air. Some were inspired by other bands. A few came from thumbing my way through a recent edition of Wired Magazine, and searching for terms that might be interesting. A few came to my head during my son’s recent school chorus concert (OK, so I was thinking when I should have been listening).

See what you think. I put the list into both Wordle and Tagzedo just to see give the list a little oomph. Which ones do I like best?

  • Boss ‘Nova and the Overtones
  • Distortion Box
  • Ten Minutes ’til Midnight
  • The Key Hackers

You?
band names wordle
band names tags
Peace (in the naming),
Kevin

PS — Meanwhile, I also made this brainstorming idea our writing prompt over at our National Writing Project iAnthology space, and some neat names are emerging there. A few teachers have even brought it into the classroom as a writing prompt.

Why Widgets?

This is another activity in the Edublog Teacher Challenge taking place the last month or so, and the focus is on Widgets, those boxes of stuff that we attach to the sides of our blogs. I’m going to sound a bit cranky here, but I often find widgets too distracting and wonder why people go overboard with them.

I know, I use them, too. I’m guilty.

A look at my blog shows a Twitter widget, an informational widget for my Teaching the New Writing book collection, a link to my Boolean Squared webcomic site, an internal search engine and links to posts on my blog.  Arrrr. I remember the first time I found out about widgets in my blog dashboard. I went a little widget crazy. I had a whole line of things running down the spine of my blog – maps, counters, videos, etc. Later, I removed most of them. But even now, every time I see that side bar of my blog, I think: that’s just too much stuff floating around.

And I often think the same thing when I go to other blogs for a visit or a comment. Widgets can produce information overload, and when we start thinking of design elements of blogs — of what makes an online site work from the visual and information angle, and what detracts from the site — I can’t help but sometimes think that widgets are nothing but clutter that can get in the way of understanding.

And yet … having a space for static information is good, right? I guess. And it gives a blog a certain identity, too. What we choose to include leaves our own mark on our blog sites, which most of us (me) don’t code or create ourselves. We (me) use templates. Widgets can give our sites a little personality.

I do have my widgets here for a reason, and that reason is that I want to provide easy-to-access information and links to my readers.  But this morning, as I was trolling through my RSS reader, it occurred to me (and not for the first time) that I almost never actually see a blog itself. I see the feed. For the most part, I don’t even know what the blogs I subscribe to look like (for example, I went to a friend’s blog last night for the first time in who knows how long and saw that he had completely redesigned the thing. I didn’t know. Did it matter?), and so, I don’t really see the widgets either.

Maybe you never see mine, either.

Peace (in the crankiness),
Kevin