Dreaming the Future: A Student Digital Story Collection

We finally found some time last week to have our sixth graders finish up their Dream Scenes digital stories, in which they create a short video about some aspiration they have for themselves in the future. We have musicians, writers, teachers, athletes and more in this bunch. This fairly simple project uses MS Paint, and Photostory3, and the voice of the writer. For me, the teacher, it gives me an inside look at what motivates my students, and also, it has allowed me to get a sense of the technical know-how of my students right at the start of the year.

Here are some Dream Scenes that we have featured on our class YouTube Account and our classroom blog, The Electronic Pencil:


Peace (in the dreams),


Lessons Learned from Whitewater Rafting

We had a beautiful day yesterday as we took our 80 sixth graders on a day of rafting. We’ve now done this trip about eight years, but still, every year is an adventure. I was thinking on the long bus ride home of some of the big picture lessons  I learned from the experience.

  • Nothing stays the same. This was evident on the river, which was hit hard by storm Irene. The water volume changed the river in many ways so that what we thought of as familiar now seemed strange and odd, with echoes of the past. Life is like that, too — a mixture of expected routine and unexpected surprises. The river was still beautiful, but the power of Mother Nature was on view everywhere we went.
  • It’s good to get out of school. The rafting trip allows us teachers to bond with kids in a way outside the classroom setting. I can’t stress enough about how important this really is. I am thinking of one student in particular, who is so quiet and struggles in my ELA class. On the raft, they were a whole different kid. Exuberant, funny and all smiles. I only see glimpses of that child when we are writing and reading. Here, this student’s personality was on full display.
  • On the raft, I eavesdrop quite a bit. They sort of forget the teacher is there. Yesterday, my 11 year olds started to talk about Facebook and how all the kids on the raft, except one, have their own Facebook accounts. I bit my tongue (the 13 year old rule) and watched the face of the one kid who was left out of this conversation. We’ll do our own technology and networking in class this year, but the sense of exclusion was real. The other kids did not make it a negative situation at all. But one student talked about how she was going to share some of the photos, and tag folks. Except for the one student not on Facebook. What struck my mind is … the power of Facebook at this young age unsettles me.
  • One of our aims is to get kids on the rafts to connect with others outside their normal friendship circles. I watched two students form a nice bond together on the raft. They knew each other but were not really friends. But on the river, they worked together, played together. They may not become best friends after the trip, either, but they will always have this adventure to fall back on when they interact. That’s a powerful thing.
  • Boats can be “war boats” or “peace boats” when it comes to dowsing other boats with water (with buckets and paddles). It’s fascinating to watch how a boat decides if what it will be, and how that designation might change during the course of the day, too. There’s a lot of negotiation that goes on. The United Nations would be proud.
  • Maybe I say this just about every year, but we have a great class of kids. As the lead organizer, I am always worried about behavior and safety on this kind of trip. I should know better. They show their true colors, and they did. Teamwork, friendship, helpfulness, support, encouragement and more were all on display throughout the entire day. It’s another way to remember what a fantastic group of students we have. Truly.

Peace (on the river),


“Policies Don’t Teach Kids” — Jim McDermott, part one

We taped the keynote address given by Jim McDermott to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project’s Best Practices Conference. The theme of the conference was on Massachusett’s transition to the Common Core curriculum and Jim’s talk was about how people teach kids, not policies on paper. Jim’s role in developing the current curriculum, and assessment tools, gives him a valuable perch. He also served on our state’s Board of Education, so his insider knowledge goes deep. He was funny, engaging and thoughtful as he used his own experiences in the classroom with difficult students to demonstrate how teachers can reach students as learners.

This is Part One of the keynote. I’ll share Part Two tomorrow.

Here is a quick bio of Jim McDermott:

James E. McDermott, Ed.D. , clinical educator and assistant professor at Clark University, is a former Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year who has taught English, Writing, Drama, and has coached championship teams in baseball in a career spanning 34 years working with urban students in grades 7 through 12.  He is Co-Founder and former Co-Director of the Central Massachusetts Writing Project, and for seven years served as the English Language Arts Liaison for the City of Worcester during which time he led the task force for developing an articulated k-12, portfolio-driven curriculum.  He served as a leading member of the Massachusetts State Curriculum Framework and Assessment Development Committees.

Professor McDermott has presented numerous workshops locally and nationally.  His focus is on creating classrooms that engage all students as thinking and feeling human beings through using low stakes writing to help even the most at-risk students to think deeply and to understand rigorous content.

In 2010, Jim was appointed as the first teacher to the Board of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.

Peace (in the talk),


Using Digital Stories to Inspire Reluctant Writers

We’re only a few weeks into the year, but a few of my students are already on the radar. You are probably in the same situation — noticing and making notes of students who will be needing a little more support and attention as writers and readers. We’re still finishing up our digital story project, but as in other years, I am noticing how this kind of technology project can engage the reluctant writers I am already seeing. This one student really struggled with sentence flow, and syntax, and getting ideas down on paper, but they have flourished with the Dream Scene digital story project, so much so that every single day they are asking if I can share their project with all of my classes.

They would never, not in a million years, do that with a written piece of writing.

I was thinking of this the other day — of what is it about the technology aspect that can provide an inroad for some of our reluctant writers to be successful, and feel successful, even though they don’t see themselves as writers. In this case, this student gets so frustrated with other assignments, they often just give up, hang their head and shut down.

So why this project?

First of all, the “writing” is hidden. Their writing is a script, a piece of narration, and so all spelling, grammar and other mechanics that often gum up their writing is behind the veil. This gives the student some power and some authority over the “content” of the piece as opposed to the “mechanics” of the piece. We’ll work on mechanics this year, for sure, but here, that isn’t the main thing that readers/viewers will see.

Second, there was a set structure to their pieces (what is your dream, why is it important, how will you achieve it) that kept the writing from getting too open-ended and unfocused. We’ll be moving on to more open writing later in the year, and I know I will need work on hard with storyboarding, and graphic organizers, and more. But for now, this structure was a comfort zone for my reluctant writers.

Third, the art element of illustrating your own digital story empowered the strengths of this particular student. They spent a lot of time on the art, erasing and restarting a handful of times to get it just right. There was a real pride in what they were doing, and that pride-fulness carried over into the digital story component of the piece. I want to note that in the illustration, the self-portrait shows my student smiling and in full focus. I love that self-perception, which we don’t always see in them in the classroom, unfortunately.

Fourth, if you listen, you can hear this student perceiving an audience. They know we will be watching it together in the classroom (and we may be sharing these over at Youth Voices, too). The sense that more than me, the teacher, would be the viewer gave a little push to try a little harder, and to not be afraid to get the picture right, and get the narration right, even if it meant slowing down and starting over (something they would almost never do with a piece of written work. They write; it’s done.)

Finally, they were creating an original video, for the first time ever. Too many young people are cast into the role of consumer, or viewer, and not enough into the role of producer. Even with this short digital story, the expertise was in their hands, and they were creating something original. The power of that act is very motivating for young people.

I’m as proud of what this student has accomplished as they are of themselves, and my task now is to keep nurturing that motivation and using that interest to work on writing skills. I will keep referring back to this early success as an example of what they can do, instead of pounding it into their head the thing they lack. The deficit model won’t work so well in this situation.

This young writer is being built, one digital story at a time.

Peace (in the mulling over),


Presentation: Video Games and Digital Writing

On Saturday, I co-presented on the topic of video games and digital writing at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My co-presenter did a fantastic job of showing how an immersive game experience can spark various kinds of writing in the classroom while I focused on the links between game design and the writing process, and how kids can create (not just play) games.
Here is my presentation:

Gaming Presentation PDF
Here is the resource list:
More Than a Game Resource PDF
Peace (in the sharing),

Book Review: Wonderstruck


Some writers just leave me gasping for breath. I can’t put the book down and feel as if life is intruding on an intimate space that the writer, the characters and I inhabit. I was thinking of this as I finished up Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret remains a solid favorite of mine), shifting towards the end of a twining narrative of words and illustrations that had me hooked from the very start. Selznick is one of those writers who is also an illustration, and who has come to understand the way to merge those two ideas together, so that the pictures are not just complementary tokens to the story. The illustrations are the story itself.

Or in this case, one of the stories. Here, in Wonderstruck, Selznick skillfully uses his line drawings to tell the tale of a deaf girl, and the pictures are like a silent movie unfolding on the pages. We don’t hear the sounds. We don’t hear any dialogue. We only see the world in a veil of silence, and through the eyes of the character. The effect is pure genius.

And then there is the other part of the story, as a young boy named Ben tries to find his father after his mother has died in a tragic car accident, and he too becomes deaf  (by a lightning strike). Using a museum as a setting for the middle of the novel, the two narratives of these characters in Wonderstruck slowly come together in a wonderful way, which I won’t give away here, except to say that the panoramic model of New York City is a delight to see, as are all of the hidden reasons for its importance.

I’d like to share this quote from the book:

“Ben remembering reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized that he had already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonder.” (574)

Is there a better phrase than that? Maybe we are all cabinets of wonder? I love that idea.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book (630 pages) nor the price, and be sure to read through Selznick’s notes at the end of how he came to write this story and how he researched the elements. Just like the video that he made for Hugo Cabret in which he talks about how he made that book (which I show every year to my young writers), Selznick here pries open the veil of the writing and drawing process for the reader to see and understand.

Peace (in the wonder),


Under Waves: A Poem Inspired by Riven

(Note: In a presentation around gaming and writing yesterday at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, my co-presenter began the session by dimming the lights and putting on the soundtrack to the immersive game, Riven, and asked us to be inspired and write. The sounds were of the ocean. Here is what I came up with as I listened.)

Under Waves

I’m drifting …
caught here in the center of this wave
as my toes drag across the bottom
of the sea …
wondering where you are right now
and if you can feel
this pull of gravity, too,
or if you see the moon as I see it
above me
with invisible forces …

I’m drifting …
hidden in the white noise
as thoughts lay scattered like seashells
on the sands …
wondering where you are right now
and if you feel
this push of gravity, too,
or if you see the moon as I see it
below me
with invisible love …

Peace (in the poems),