Sparking Discussions and Using Video as Text: Lying

One of my goals this year for myself in the classroom is trying to spark more engaging discussions with my students around broader, larger issues that don’t have easy answers. I’ve always done this (as you have) but I am trying to think about it in a more systematic, organized way to get my sixth graders thinking and considering many sides of issues. Part of this is just because those are the critical thinking skills I want to see in my students, and part of it is because our new Massachusetts Curriculum Standards (ie, Common Core) demand that this kind of “speaking and listening” goes on in the classrooms.

My students read the novel, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, over the summer, and the main character is a habitual liar. We had a long discussion about that word “mostly” in the title, and the role of the “unreliable narrator” in a story. We also began to analyze why Homer does lie — and whether the lying is good or bad. On our first day of discussions, a number of students said what they didn’t like about the book was that Homer lies a lot. But as we parsed it out, I think it became more clear that Homer lies to protect himself (sometimes) as well as lies because … well, he can’t help it.

This shifted our discussion to why people do lie, and every hand in the room shot up (including mine) when I asked, Have you ever lied about anything? And that led to a wide-ranging discussion about when it is OK to lie (to protect someone’s feelings, to protect yourself) to white lies (such as when someone in the room tells you to lie to someone on the telephone) to whether governments ever lie to their people (yes, my students argued, although the reasons might be different, from protecting the populace to covering up something.)

What we did then was move to using video as our text. I brought us into the site ‘What’s the Big Idea?” — which is a site built around teaching middle school and high school students concepts of philosophy by using clips from Hollywood movies. (Note: a friend of mine worked with an area college professor to build up the site. She’s a filmmaker.) I love how the clips introduce the larger concept, and then shifts into short clips from movies, and then asks probing questions. We used the lying section, but there are others (friendship, peer pressure, bullying) and still more under development.

We first watched a scene from the Jim Carrey movie, Liar, Liar, and then the two scenes from Jaws. Both echoed back to our earlier conversation, and yet, the clips gave us something else to talk around, as we were able to think about the ramifications of lying — in the first, the character has to tell the truth and hurts everyone’s feelings, and in the second, the government’s decision to lie to the public leads to another shark attack.

A few of the novels and books we read this year will have this underlying theme of lying, and so I see this as an opening discussion that we will revisit throughout the year. The movie clips from the website provided us with a helpful visual context from which my students moved back and forth from the novel, to their own lives, to the movies. This gave them various entry points to engage in the classroom conversation that really had no clear-cut answer to the question, Is it OK to lie?

Peace (in the talk),


Thinking About the Year Ahead (as word clouds)

I do an opening activity that has my sixth graders thinking about what they are worried about and what they are looking forward to, and then we gather up those words and phrases for a word cloud activity.

What they look forward to:
Sixth Grade - looking ahead
What they worry about:
sixth grade - worries

It’s a nice way to break the ice around worries, in particular, but also, to celebrate what they are looking forward to this year.

Peace (in the word),

WMWP Best Practices: Digital Literacy Theme

If you are in the Western Massachusetts area, I invite you to consider coming to our Western Massachusetts Writing Project event next month called Best Practices. The theme running through many of the sessions is digital literacy (which is our inquiry idea for WMWP this year). I am honored to have been asked to give a keynote address at the event, and I will be exploring the ways that technology and digital literacies are part of the lives of young people, and how we as educators can recognize and tap into those ideas for learning.
See the program:
WMWP Best Practices 2012 Program
You can register online at the WMWP website.
Peace (in the practice),

Podcast Poem: Words Under Water (or the Drowned Font)

I’ve been reading the book Just My Type that looks at fonts, typesetting, and the ways that lettering changes our perceptions as writers and as readers. It’s pretty fascinating and I will explore more on another day. But one story stood out — that of a creator of typeface who fell out with his partner, and before he died, he dumped all of the moveable type of the font into the river in order to destroy it rather than give it over to his partner. I wondered about those letters, and those words that might come of them, and this poem came from that.

Words Under Water (or the Drowned Font)

if you will:
words under water –
letters culled together by the ocean’s pull
as heavy metal type, cast off from a London bridge,
re-assembling themselves seamlessly into stories no one will ever hear
or read,
and yet filling up countless pages that get turned by the currents
every single day
in a font lost forever
by the jealousy of its creator
whose only goal as his sunset days ended
was to destroy the words
by drowning.

Peace (in the forgotten font),

Book Review: The Night Circus

There are books about magic, and then, there are magical books about magic. The Night Circus, a debut novel by Erin Morgenstern, is one of those novels that has such beauty and mystery and magic of many kinds shifting in and out of the narrative that I had trouble putting it down, and that was a problem because school was starting and my brain was needed elsewhere. Still, I snuck in my reading moments.

I notice a lot of reviews of The Night Circus fluctuate between disappointment and rapture. It seems the disappointment comes from the book jacket overselling the “competition” between two magicians when what this really is is a love story between two students of master magicians whose lives have been put into “play” in mysterious ways. The circus itself — a black-and-white themed, ever-expanding affair that arrives and leaves without notice — is the backdrop for all that unfolds here in this story.

I’m reluctant to give away too much, except that for a new novelist, Morgenstern does a fantastic job of balancing the use of magic in underlying ways (there’s not blasting of wizards from wands or any of that) and building up a real sense of wonder as multiples narrative threads come together. And the ending, where a conversation between two characters about the role that “stories” play in our lives, and how they weave magic for all of us, grabbed me at once and brought me right into why I love novels so much, and how transforming good writing and powerful stories can be. Given what came before in the novel, it was a perfect way to end.

Peace (in the night),


Six Word Summer Memoirs

Although my sixth graders won’t start writing in earnest until next week, I wanted to give them a taste of some of the varied writing activities we will be doing this year. So, I introduced the “six word story” concept to them, connecting the writing idea to summer memories. I then gave them each notecards, and had them write at least one six word memoir (many wrote multiple stories) and then we did some sharing out of our stories. You could see they were intrigued — six words? how hard could that be? — until they started writing — six words? That’s too many (or too few)! — and many used their fingers to count words. It was like watching the writing of haiku.

The stories were great, and it gave me another chance to quickly get to know them and to connect with their summer experiences. I also shared a few of my own including:

The band got tighter; rocked out.


Agreed to roller-coaster ride; heart-stopping fun.

We talked about how you need to leave out things, and how it could not just be an adjective list, and how you need to capture an idea in a short amount of time. These are all skill we will be developing this year, and the six word summer memoir was a perfect start-of-the-year sharing activity.

Here are some of theirs:


Peace (in the six),


Middleweb Book Review: The Graphic Novel Classroom


I had the pleasure of reviewing a book — The Graphic Novel Classroom by Maureen Bakis — for the Middleweb website (which is a fantastic resource for middle school teachers). Bakis does an excellent job of showing how graphic novels and comics can have a place in the high school curriculum. (The comic above was my addition to my review. I figured it made sense to have a companion piece to the writing, given the subject matter.)

Read my review here.

Peace (in the review),

Sometimes, Things Fall Apart With Technology

incomplete class_picture
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably think: Man, everything in technology works for that dude. It’s all so seamless.

Trust me, it doesn’t. Often — more often than I write about — things fall apart and my head starts to hurt.

Yesterday, our first day of school, I had this vision of bringing my homeroom class of sixth graders into our webcomic site to create avatars and begin an introductory comic. It’s a great opening activity on many levels because it opens up conversations on many fronts: how you represent yourself, how an avatar can be used, what a webcomic is, and how we will be using technology through the year.

What I didn’t count on was that an upgrade to the comic site over the summer requires the most recent version of Flash, and only about half of our laptops were ready with the new flash player. (And I had not double checked the working of the comic site — an oversight I quickly regretted). It was scramble time, as I quickly tried to come up with workaround plans.

First, we tried to download the flash player update, but they were all in student accounts which doesn’t allow users to download and install software.

Second, I had them shift over from Firefox to Google Chrome. Some computers still do not have Chrome. And, for whatever reason, some of them refuse to download Chrome.

Third, I had them share computers, as I worked to log in as an administrator and fix things as best as I could. But that meant a lot of waiting time for some kids, and about half the class never even got to really start the activity during the 45 minutes period.

Meanwhile, in the background of the laptops’ operating system, the downloading of updates from a variety of programs that had been waiting all summer long to begin now started to run, causing a wireless logjam and freezing up some computers.


The good news was that while some of my new students were frustrated (no doubt, thinking: is this how the year is going go?), most adapted nicely to the situation, helping each other out. And this morning, when I checked the comic site, it seemed like all but four of my students have finished their avatars on the site. A handful must have gone on last night and worked at it at home.

The reality is that we have old laptops (I realized that the cart of PCs in my room were bought when my current class was in preschool) that require a lot of updating and vigilance on my part, and while I am grateful that we do have technology, I know it doesn’t always work the way I want it to work. And when I am delivering professional development with a technology component, I remember days like yesterday — days when it would have been easy to throw my hands up and say “enough already.”

But I kept at it, and I keep at it, because I do believe in technology and media as important elements of the literary lives of my students. And while it may not be prominent in the Common Core or other curriculum documents, the ability to persevere and create workarounds when something goes awry are important skills. Too bad they often come with headaches, too.

Peace (along the wires),


Social Media Counter

I’ve shared this “social media counter” by Gary Hayes before, but it caught my eye again this morning, and it’s difficult not to look at the numbers rolling by and think: wow. (If you are curious about the data, check out Gary Hayes’ post, in which he explains his sources.) There is also an iPad version (99cents)
Notice how there are four main buttons: Social, Mobile, Games and Heritage. And you can change the time sequence, too. I just find this fascinating.

Peace (in the media use),