Webcomic: Occupy the Classroom

I had this idea the other day to turn around the Occupy Wall Street into Occupy the Classroom as a webcomic. So this is what I came up with. Now I am thinking this idea may need some more episodes down the road (what about a counter Tea Party group of kids? I like that.) It came to me that many of the attributes of the Occupy Movement makes sense for a classroom culture (as long as the teacher doesn’t act like the Oakland Police Department).

(You can also view the comic over at Flickr.)

Peace (in the funny pages),


When the Imaginary Game is Passcode


I was working in another room yesterday morning when I heard my seven year old son, and our seven year old niece, making up some imaginary game. This is nothing new, and it is something we actively encourage. I sort of kept an ear out on what they were doing as I was writing and then I heard my son saying, “Write this down: 97 – 81 – 5 – 44,” and I could hear my niece scribbling on paper, asking for some clarification. More numbers. I heard some chatter about getting the right numbers … it was enough to get me intrigued. I wandered in.

“What are you two up to?”

“We’re inventing passcodes. Secret passwords.”


“Passcodes for what?” I asked.

“For … you know … things. So no one sees it.”

My son was holding an advertising flier from the newspaper, and he had circles some random numbers from prices and phone numbers to the store. This is where he was getting the numbers that he was reading off to my niece. She was then creating the document you see above. Cute, right?

But later, it got me thinking about how this kind of lexicon of passwords and systems got into their young world, and I remembered that an online reading site that my son uses for his classroom (I will write about that another day) has passwords with students accounts. Those passwords are visual (a horse, or a tractor, etc.). And his older brothers use passcodes on their mobile devices so the younger guy doesn’t get into their apps and games.

Somehow, he made the leap from the visual to the numerical, and it just brought home the fact to me about the world he is growing up in — where passcode protection is not only necessary, but it is becoming part of the fabric of their world of information and media and online access. I like that they are making a game of it. Later, when he is old enough for us to talk about how to protect your online identity and information, maybe he will already have some knowledge base. Maybe not.

Even so, it is pretty fascinating to see them stumble into such a game of numbers and passwords.

Peace (in 34-5-29000),


App Review: Shake-a-Phrase

I was approached on Twitter to review an educational app for vocabulary, so I figured: what the heck? The developer seemed nice enough and he sent me a code for downloading Shake-a-Phrase, which I somehow messed up and ended up buying the thing after all. So, there’s a sort of disclaimer here: I should have gotten this app for free in exchange for posting my opinion about it, but I bought it anyway. Take it for what you will.

What is Shake-a-Phrase? It’s a vocabulary app that seems nicely suited for learning some basic parts of speech (when you shake the app, it changes the sentences). There are three main components to it, including a section in which you tap words to identify the parts of speech identified (the basics: nouns, verbs, adjectives), and each time you do it correctly, you move to another level. I’m not sure what the levels bring you, to be honest, but I can see some advantage to my students around parts of speech here. It might get way to repetitious after about ten minutes, though. There are a few “themes” of words — sports, monsters, etc. — that make it interesting, but only to a point.

Another component of Shake-a-Phrase provides you with a one sentence story, and if you tap words, it pulls up both the definition and the part of speech of the word. This is useful for learning new words. Again, useful but repetitious after a while.

The third component is called “story starter,” and they give you the first part of a story, which is designed to inspire your writing. Except you can’t write on the app. Which seems strange to me, as I was all set to imagine “what if a flaky serpent evolved into a witty pixie …” But there was no room on the app for my words. I sort felt let down.

Overall, the app is nicely designed, and it is pretty fun to play for a short amount of time, although it feels a bit like the result of an adult designing a game that they think a kid will play for hours when the kid really wants to play Plants and Zombies. I don’t think my sixth graders would find it all that interesting for too long.

Yet, Shake-a-Phrase could be a nice addition, or extension, activity for work around Parts of Speech. What would make it more valuable for me would be for the app to have all of the major Parts of Speech, not just the Big Three. You can only get so far with nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prepositions, pronouns, adverbs and the rest would be more helpful. And if it were something I could pull up on the interactive board, that would be neat (Can you see us shaking the board? Yeah.)

Still, for younger students who are just learning that we even have things in our language called Parts of Speech (although why and if Parts of Speech are important to improving writing is whole other conversation), the app might be a beneficial entry point for fun practice. The shaking of the app and the silly stories that appear on the screen would likely be a draw for a lot of kids.

Peace (in the shakeable words),


Maybe We All Need a Blackout Once in a While

Not that friends and colleagues are not still suffering mightily from the great storm we had this weekend in New England that blanketed us with heavy snow, causing downed power lines and hardship all around. In the town where I teach, many are still without power. My family only got our power back a few days ago. It’s been rough all around and we realize that we are better off than some.

But with many people I run into around the town, the conversation has inevitably turned from riding out the loss of electricity (plenty of references to Little House on the Prairie, just so you know) to the loss of our connections to the various information grids that we are part of. For our family, we had almost three days of no electricity and no phones at all — no landline and no cell. We were in an almost complete information and communication blackout, relying on radio (which made us realize how bad our local radio stations have become when it comes to news) and the local newspaper (which valiantly drive its reporters and editors to another state in order to publish a barebones edition) and the word-of-mouth of our neighbors.

And yet … most of the neighbors, friends and people that I met say they needed that step back from the overwhelming world of media and technology. Comments such as “I didn’t mind as much as I thought I would” to “You know, it felt good” to “I guess Mother Nature is giving us a reminder” to “We played Monopoly — the board game — for the first time as a family in years” — all of which indicate that maybe we need to remember that we don’t need to always be knee deep in the Information Age, 24/7. It would do us all some good to unplug things for a bit from time to time, and reconnect with the people around us. There’s a quiet that can be comforting when all of our devices are silent, and we are left to our own thoughts, and conversations.

Yes, I missed my work here at the blog, and at my various writing spaces. I didn’t rush to get online when we had power back (I was too tired), but it wasn’t long before I had drifted over here. Yet, I appreciated the quiet. Now, if we could just do that unplugging without the weather event, we’d be fine. (You hear that, Mother Nature? I know you’re listening.)

Peace (in the disruption zone),


Another NWP Teacher on a Similar Gaming Journey

Sometimes, the journey into new terrain can be awfully lonely.

So it was with great surprise that I recently found that another National Writing Project teacher who was in the same exact session as I was on the topic of gaming at last year’s NWP Annual Conference writing has published an article in the Wisconsin English Journal about taking what he learned from the session (led by Alan Gershenfield, of eLine Media) and how he had brought gamingĀ  into his own writing curriculum. I have been on the same path, using the information and elements of Gershenfield’s talk for my jump into video gaming as another path into learning with students.

(See all of my recent posts about gaming in the classroom.)

Fifth Grade teacher Greg Kehring, in his article “Tech Tools for Teachers, by Teachers: Video Game Design in the Classroom,” does an excellent job of explaining not only the rationale of why he moved gaming elements into his writing classroom. He also outlines the many ways that video game design and writing process are connected (this is the same avenue that I have been exploring). He also has his kids using Gamestar Mechanic, which is the site that I use.

Greg writes:

“When I started this unit. I wanted to offer all students a chance to become truly engaged in the writing process, and all students were immersed in this writing experience (of creating games and keeping a reflection journal). Although it may have been masked in a digital disguise, the traditional writing process was at the core of this project, and all students were able to use it successfully.” – p.30

Check out Greg Kehring’s entire piece at the Wisconsin English Journal.

And Greg’s article helped me sort out something else, too. My ventures into gaming with students so far was with a summer camp project with a certain audience (OK, middle school gaming geeks). I’ve been toying with whether to bring video game design into my school as an after-school activity, or to bring it right into all of my sixth grade classes as an integrated curriculum. Thanks to Greg’s piece, I realize now that I need to bring the concept to all of my students, as part of my regular writing curriculum. There — decision made. And I will have my students do written reflections of their experiences, too, just as Greg’s students did.

Greg and I don’t know each other, but I’m happy to have stumbled onto his work. Thanks, Greg.

Peace (in the games),


Book Review: Dying to Meet You/Over My Dead Body

(My intent was to run this review on Halloween, but the storm had other ideas for my digital connections. A few days late …)

A few years ago, I stumbled into Kate Klise’s wonderful Regarding the Fountain, and loved it so much I bought a set for my sixth grade classroom. It’s a story told in artifacts, which seems to be Klise’s forte, and I loved how its humor and inference and character development intertwined in such an interesting way. Needless to say, my students have loved the book, which is very different from what they are traditionally taught.

I received two other Klise books from a recent book order — Dying to Meet You and Over My Dead Body — and again, Klise tells a story in a most un-traditional way. Letters, notes, sketch drawings, newspaper articles, and other forms of writing are the narrative text of this story of a haunted house, a young boy who has been abandoned by his parents and a writer with writer’s block who moves in. As in Regarding the Fountain, the character’s names are a hoot: Ignatius B. Grumply (IB Grumply), Seymour Hope, Olive C. Spence, Dick Tater, M. Balm, etc.

While I didn’t find the story quite as strong as Regarding the Fountain, these two books in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series (I see a third book is out, too) are nice companions to the Klise archives. Last year, I had a few students who could not get enough of Klise after we read Regarding the Fountain, and one of them recommended Dying to Meet You to me, and then she went and wrote her own book in Klise’s style. It’s hard to argue with that kind of motivation.

Peace (in the artifacts),



Scenes from the Halloween Storm

We got hit hard by the pre-Halloween Snow Storm in my area, losing power for almost three days. It was the oddest thing to see about a foot of snow on tree limbs still with green leaves or the color of foliage making their way. Although we did not have power in our neighborhood, our community still gathered for a version of our annual Pumpkin Contest and we even went out trick-or-treating last night (although our city postponed Halloween until Saturday, as if they can do that).
Here are some images from the morning after the storm…

Peace (in the snow),

Book Review: The Bridge to Neverland

For years now, I have been reading aloud the Peter and the Starcatchers series with my sons. As the older son grew out of it, the next one would find his place next to me on the couch to listen, and now, it is on to the third son. (Of course, the older boys hover around the edges of the read aloud, furtively taking in the stories). The series is a fresh, fun take on Peter Pan, but told with humor and action by Dave Barry (yep, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson.

I won’t go into the entire series here (there are main novels and a few off-shoot novels), but there is plenty of magic, adventure, interesting villains and heroes, and all of the echoes from the old Peter Pan books that allow you to connect these storylines with the old. And for read-aloud, they are among the funnest to share with an audience (even an audience of one).

Not long ago, my youngest son and I finished reading the latest in the series – The Bridge to Neverland — which transports the story from the early days of the story (which had been faithfully set in England around the turn of the century) to modern-day America. Here, a brother and a sister unwittingly discover the magical substance “starstuff,” are chased by the evil shapeshifting Ombra (who forms as a cloud of ravens in one of the strangest imagery I have seen), and use an invention of Albert Einstein to jump across parallel universes in order to call on Peter Pan to save the day.

OK, so that sounds plenty strange as I write it. But it works.

The Bridge to Neverland is interesting, although I did not find it quite as deep or as engaging as the rest of the series, in my opinion. It seems to try a bit too hard to bring the story forward into the modern day. And, since the book is published by Disney’s Hyperion, the use of Disney World as a narrative device, while interesting, seemed a bit too self-serving at various times. (And again, my sons and I talked about when and if the series will become a movie, which seems inevitable if Disney is bankrolling your books around a Peter Pan story, right?)

This year, I have an extremely strong reader in my class and I have turned her on to The Starcatchers books. She is devouring the series (which is no easy task, if you ever see the size of these books). It makes me happy to have put a story into someone’s hands that I have so enjoyed. You will enjoy them with your kids, too. Trust me. Find a place on your couch for a story to be told.

Peace (in the magic),


Unpacking Guiding Principles: Massachusetts Common Core

Yesterday afternoon, I spent the second of three planned afternoon PD sessions with colleagues in ELA, unpacking various elements of the new Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks that reflect our state’s adoption of the Common Core Curriculum. Much of our inquiry yesterday was looking at the Guiding Principles, which form the underpinning of the entire document. Each of us was given a Guiding Principle to read and understand, and then we identified key words and phrases that captures the essence of our principle, which we then shared out to the larger group.

I took notes and made this word cloud.
Mass Common Core Guiding Principles

I’d like to point out a few things that we noticed:

  • Mostly, we thought the Guiding Principles were on track with our views of teaching;
  • We noticed that cultural differences and heritages were represented, although they exist in the shadows of “standard English” and “American culture” references;
  • Creativity gets only a few mentions but the phrases of nurturing “the power of imagination” and for students to “create worlds unseen” are at least areas where we can drop anchor for creative writing;
  • The scaffolding of increasing complex texts and writing is evident throughout the document;
  • Struggling students, and the various techniques to reach them, are noted in the document, which was appreciated by our group of teachers;
  • Connections to families, the community and role models were a bit surprising to see as their own principle, and greatly appreciated by our group.

Peace (in the principles),