Happy Birthday, Western Massachusetts Writing Project!

We’re having a 20th anniversary celebration of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project tonight at the University of Massachusetts, with special guests (including National Writing Project Executive Director Sharon Washington and poet Lucille Burt) and viewing of student work and WMWP activities over the last two decades. It will be great.

Here is the news blurb that went out:

At the event, WMWP will release its newest publication, “Writing to Go II,” a book featuring a range of writing assignments by WMWP teachers, each coupled with student work for those assignments. Participating teachers and students represent schools in Hampshire, Hampden and Worcester counties.

The project will also celebrate its growth from a cadre of 15 teacher leaders who completed the first Summer Institute in 1993 to a multi-faceted project that in 2011-12 delivered professional development programs to more than 1,100 Massachusetts educators in 11 Massachusetts counties, with most activities centered in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin, Middlesex and Worcester counties. To capture highlights of the past 20 years, the program will include a digital collage, a timeline, displays of other teacher and student publications, and features on key programs and future plans. A Massachusetts Senate resolution honoring WMWP, filed by Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg, will be read.”

So, of course:

Peace (in the celebration),

Taking Up the Stopmotion Motion Remix Offer (from a Kindergarten Class)

I’ve had remix on my mind the past week, as part of the Teach the Web MOOC (now in its third week), and I came across this blog post by Kindergarten teacher Ben Sheridan, who writes about doing stopmotion movies with his students. The post is a nice example of reflective sharing, and then Sheridan tells his readers (the world) that some students created a video and they want to invite others to remix it and add narration. The class published the video, without audio, and Sheridan explained:

“We talked it over when we were done shooting and decided to share it out without adding any audio. They would like other classes to add their own audio and share it back with us. They want to see how many versions of the movie can be made. We even talked about having people remix the video as well but that may be a bit of a stretch. We’ll see if any one take that approach.” — Ben Sheridan

How can one resist that challenge and it occurred to me that using Popcorn Maker might be the way to go, since I could just borrow the video from Vimeo, and layer in some audio and other things. So, I did, using their Star Wars theme and twisting it around a bit to create a story of a cupcake thief (figuring the kindergarten kids would get a kick out of that). I then wrote a letter to the class at the blog, sharing my remix and encouraging them to be creative.

What I noticed as I was remixing was the “invisible audience” of Sheridan’s classroom. I wanted to amuse them and also respect the work that they had done. It was an honor that they bestowed on us to use their work for new purposes, and even as I was re-imagining the story (thinking, too, of the story they were probably thinking as they created their video), it felt less like theft and more like appreciation. And I guess that is the goal of most remix efforts — celebrating the original even as you try to move it in a new direction. In my mind, it would not have made sense to record an audio track that matched exactly what they had in mind when filming. I felt the need to move the remix in an unexpected direction, and by doing that, I was empowered to be creative in my efforts. That’s been the real lesson around remixing, I think.
Cupcake Thief Remix

Go view the Star Wars Cupcake Thief remix

How about you? You want to try a remix of their video? Either go to Ben’s post or use their video down below to remix your own story. You don’t have to use Popcorn Maker, as I did, but you can. If you do, be sure to share the link and remix with the class, and I’d love to see it, too. (You can even use the remix button my Popcorn project, if that helps).

Peace (in the remix),



Slice of Life: The Contemplative Quiet of Writing in PD

(I haven’t done a Slice of Life post in a few weeks, but felt this scene deserved its moment.)

Yesterday afternoon, I was facilitating some professional development through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project in a local urban school. We’ve been working with the teachers and administrators there since January, pursuing topics of classroom inquiry to help frame the importance of writing in a school that has struggled over the last few years. As is the custom of WMWP and National Writing Project events, I started us out with a simple “writing into the day” prompt that would lead to discussion. They wrote about an insight gained and a question that remains.

You could hear a pin drop as we all wrote for about 10 minutes. There’s a certain magical silence when a room full of people — teachers or students — are in the act of writing, as if the brainpower and thinking were concentrated on the paper (and computer keyboards). It’s very contemplative to be in the midst of that, isn’t it? Midway through the writing session, the principal (who has been participating when she can) came in, stopped in the doorway and looked at the roomful of her teachers, writing with concentration. I hoped she would not say a thing, and just let the magic continue, but that wasn’t to be.

“What’s going on in here?” she asked.

“Writing,” I replied, and then got her settled into the back of the room, where she started to write, too.

Peace (in the words),


Poetry, Songwriting and the Goo Goo Dolls

We ended our poetry unit last week by connecting the work we had done around writing and reading poetry (figurative language, rhyme, stanzas, theme, mood/tone, etc.) by looking at some pop song lyrics. As I told my students, I don’t suspect many of them go home and curl up on the couch regularly with a book of poetry (although, they should). But most of them do listen to music on a regular, daily basis, and songwriting is poetry put to music. They readily agreed to my assessment.

I love this connection, not only a teacher and musician, but also as a writer, and the students get excited about thinking about the music they like to listen to in terms of the artistic approach. Here, we use two songs from the past few years: The Goo Goo Dolls and their song, Better Days; and Kris Allen’s Live Like You’re Dying. Both songs offer up good examples of pop music structure — the verse, chorus, bridge pattern is in full display, and there are noticeable rhyming schemes, and the overall “message” of the lyrics combined with the pop sensibilities of the music is strong.

Plus, we rocked the classroom with the music.

I then remind them of the real lesson: when you are listening to the songs you love, do you notice patterns? Rhyming? Themes? My hope is that they begin to make connections to poetry, but also that the lesson sparks the skill of active listening. What is that songwriting trying to say? How are they saying it? How does the rhythm of the words work in partnership to the rhythm of the beat? Why did the songwriter do that instead of this? These are all things to notice.

When we did a poetry freewrite on Friday, one of my students wrote and then performed for us a rap song that he wrote, with lots of internal rhymes and a theme about picking yourself up when you are done. If you knew this student, you would not expect to hear flowing hip-hop coming from his lips, but there he was … writing a song and rapping it for us. Nice.

Peace (in the songs),


Student Interactive Fiction: Battle of the Blood

Battle of Blood interactive fiction

I had a student who decided to use our Interactive Fiction writing as a way to meet the goals of a science project around the structure of cells. She crafted this story, working on it for three weeks, and then shared it out last week as part of a Cell Walk. A lot of students did other kinds of projects (mostly food related) but I was proud of her for working so hard, being engaged, and then sharing her story out during a public showing of projects with students and family members.

Read The Battle of the Blood by Hannah

You can also check out the other Interactive Fiction pieces my sixth graders wrote at our website.

Visit the Norris School Interactive Fiction Website

Peace (in the story),

Book Review and Common Core Text: Black Ships Before Troy

One would be hard-pressed to argue against the powerful story of The Illiad, but I am having a difficult time thinking through my thoughts about Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff. The trouble is not the story, but the text. I picked up this retelling of The Illiad because our state of Massachusetts Department of Education has listed it as a model reading text for sixth graders, and Black Ships Before Troy is the focus of one of the state’s exemplary Model Curriculum Lesson Units as part of our Common Core Initiative. (I am still trying to get my hands on the unit itself. We are not a Race to the Top school, and only Race to the Top schools have access to all the model units. I have no idea why.)

Which means the state would really like all sixth graders to read this book. I suppose some state folks might argue differently about my view on that — that this book is merely one example, and all that, but who’s kidding who? They don’t spent a year or more working on a model unit just for the fun of it.

Me? I had trouble getting through the book. Again, it’s not the story (although how much killing and battle can one read about before getting glazed eyes). It is the writing in this book. At least, that’s my humble opinion. Sutcliff’s text would go right over the heads of most of my sixth graders, and I can tell you quite honestly that I would probably lose them in the first chapter. With numerous characters and countless Gods, and with the story shifting between the heroes of Greece and the heroes of Troy, I could barely keep track of who is who, and I know the story already pretty well.

No doubt, the inclusion of this text is a sign of the “complex texts” element of the Common Core, and the drawing of connections between literacy and Social Studies. I get it. But I wonder if the folks who worked on this unit, and the folks at the Department of Education, thought deeply enough about something more than reading when choosing books (although, a quick look at the Lexile site shows that Black Ships, with a level of 1300, is clearly a high school text Or am I reading that wrong?).  If we lose our students in a book early, it is painfully difficult to get them back. I know this from experience.

And it’s not just Black Ships Before Troy, either.

I notice that Tuck Everlasting, which is a beautifully-written novel with some huge themes, has been set up as a text for fourth grade. Fourth grade? I teach this book in sixth grade, and there are many students who struggle with the issues raised in the novel, as well as the way that Natalie Babbitt uses her poetic skills to tell her story and set the scene. It’s a perfect text for 12 year olds. But 9 year olds? I don’t think so. (although Lexile does think so, as its 770 designation puts it in the fourth grade category).

There’s an issue of the Common Core. And there’s the issue of Common Sense. In this case, the two ideas are not meshing. And that is frustrating to me, as the teacher who wants to instill a love of reading and books in my students.

Peace (in the text),




Screencast Tutorial: Making a Popcorn Maker Video

A friend and colleague, Gail P., had asked in the Teach the Web MOOC if folks would create video tutorials on how they are using the webmaker tools. I decided to take her up on the challenge with Popcorn Maker, and made this. I realized afterwards that the audio is low and tried my best to boost it up. Sorry about that!

Here is the Popcorn video that I made during the session for Gail, which builds off the Digital Is animation that I shared yesterday.

Check out the Digital Is Popcorn Video

Peace (in the sharing),


Climbing the Architecture of a Website

One of the wonderful things about being part of a community in the midst of exploration is that folks share out all sorts of cool ideas, and then those ideas spark other ideas. The other day, I wrote about how Michelle in the Teach the Web MOOC explained how to use a view setting in Firefox to see a 3D image image of websites. My friend, Chad, then used a screenshot and added some art to the image:

He also suggested we think of ways to make art with the 3D modeling, which led to me think about making an animated video with Pivot Stickfigure, in which the character “climbs” up the architecture of a website. Instead of my own blog, I used the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site.

I’d love to see what other people might do. Is that a challenge? Sort of.

Peace (along the mountains of data),



Considering A Culture of Remix

I’ve been trying to think about the act of “remixing” this week, mostly as a result of the activities over at the Teach the Web MOOC. My friend, Chad, shared this fantastic Ignite Talk video from Nishant Shah, who delves into the validation of remixing and how the act of remixing balances the art of creation, recreation and authenticity of the original work even while creating something new. Over at the MOOC, folks have been taking each other’s work and remixing it in different ways, so Nishant Shah’s presentation resonated with me.

I’m still struck by the question of whether most folks who publish original content are OK with remixing of their work by others. I’m not losing sleep over it or anything but still … the easy ability to take someone’s video or music or art, and recast it (either in a positive or negative light) with technology hints at the larger question of “ownership” in the digital age.  Do we assume that anything we publish online is fair game for remix? It’s a fascinating topic, I think. (I am sure that somewhere, lawyers are getting paid a few thousand dollars an hour to argue about it).

See what Chad did to me, for example. I found it amusing, and insightful, but I admit to wondering when I first clicked the play button: what’s he done with my words and video and twitter feed? What if, instead of using my own blog post words, he put a political diatribe in there, against my political views (such as advocating federal support for the NRA or something)? What if the words coming out of my mouth were not my own? In that case, instead of being amused by the remix, I’d be angry at what he had done. But so what? The remix would have been published, distributed and out of my control at that point. Would my only recourse be another remix? (or hiring one of those lawyers?)

But I do know that I have students who do mash-ups of videos, and remix music that they like, and they don’t even think about ownership issues when doing so. They are only thinking that they want to remake the original of something into something new. THAT is the remix thought process for a lot of young people.

Peace (in the mixing),


Book Review: Dangerous Waters

This was one of those “let’s give it a try” read-aloud books that my son and I found (in my classroom library, of all places) and soon, we were deep into the mystery unfolding. Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone is set on the Titanic, so you know what is going to happen eventually.  The ship is going down. But in the days leading up to the disaster, Mone introduces his young protagonist — Patrick Waters — who is a steward on the boat. Waters (I know, the name) meets up with a rich benefactor, whose treasured artifact is an original book by Sir Francis Bacon. The rich mans sees a potential intellectual in Waters and becomes his tutor during the first leg of the journey, discussing Bacon and Treasure Island with the young worker.

Meanwhile, there are two nefarious passengers on the Titanic who want the rare Bacon book for their own (the references to “I want the Bacon” and “Here is my Bacon” had my son laughing) because they believe the book may hold the mystery to unlocking the power of alchemy. They plot, maneuver, scheme and more in order to get the book, even as Patrick uncovers the plot, and becomes part of it. I loved that a treasured book was the center of the mystery, of course.

Another storyline involves Patrick’s older brother, who works in the bowels of the ship, pumping coal into the furnace that keeps the boat moving. It’s a tender touch to the story, and it allows the writer to bring some depth to Patrick’s character and history, as we learn more about his late father — a bibliophile who never fit in with the hard-scrabble Irish working class community where he lived — and the demands of his mother to find a good job with honor.

Disaster awaits, of course, and I won’t give it away, except to say that Mone keeps up a brisk pace with the plot and ends the book on a solid note of Bacon. Or is that a side of Bacon?

Peace (in the adventure),