The Quidditch Glogster Challenge

Today is our Annual Quidditch Championship. It’s no doubt going to be a loud, energetic day. I feel a headache coming on already.


Leading up to this day have been various curriculum activities (writing, art, math, etc.) but I also put out a voluntary challenge to my students. I set up a project in our Glogster account and challenged them to create a poster that celebrates our game of Quidditch. The winner will get a toy Snitch.

Here is the one that won:

Peace (in the game),


The Real Costs of Technology (The Story of Electronics)

Have you used The Story of Stuff in your classroom? You should. It’s a video series about the world of consumable goods, and the impact of the “throw away” philosophy of the modern world has on the environment and our health. Earlier this week, I shared this video — The Story of Electronics — with my students as we begin to move our way into an environmental inquiry theme for the remainder of the school year.

A couple of observations:

  • There are hidden impacts from cheap goods that we never think about;
  • It brings another view to our conceptions about the positives of technology;
  • The use of “persuasive voice” and “loaded term” fills this video series (see a video critique of The Story of Stuff).

I also want to note that my Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleagues (and fellow editors of Teaching the New Writing) Charlie Moran and Anne Herrington put together a fascinating collection of resources around the topic of the “true cost of technology” (particularly around the issue of energy use) over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site. It’s a worth a visit.

Peace (in the stuff),


The Hypocritical Me (or How Testing Changed My Teaching)

It wasn’t too many years ago that I (perhaps like you) scoffed at the idea that standardized testing would ever alter the way I teach my students. I was confident that my approaches and my philosophies around writing, in particular, would carry my students forward, no matter what kind of assessment would be thrown their way. The writers and readers in them — the things were nurtured all year — would shine through.

I was confident of this approach … until I began to see some of the data provided by our state in the aftermath of the tests. (Note: we just had state testing last week so this topic has been lingering in my head).

After a few years of looking at those numbers that come like a flood our way, and parsing them around, it became clear to me that my students, overall, were having significant difficulties in a variety of specific areas and the testing results were showing me these weaknesses, if I cared to notice. This is what the designers of standardized testing will say their system is all about, right? It is designed to highlight areas of strengths and deficiencies, and teachers need to act on that data.

But first, you have to shake off the idea that no test administered by the state can be valuable … at all. There are plenty of reasons not to like standardized testing: children may not do well on a two-day test; the assessment is narrow in scope; the stress of sitting for two hours does not bring out the best in our students; the scores come to us too late to help the crop of students we are currently teaching; the students are writing to an unknown and inauthentic audience; and so on. I still believe those are areas of concern and ones that we can’t lose sight of. The test is not the be-all, end-all of the school year.

However, if we look for trends in the data (and the testing is nothing if not full of data), then the numbers can provide a path for us to change what we do, hopefully for the better. For me, I now look with depth at the scores of the tests from this year’s class and last year’s class. I want to see this current group as a whole and I want to know if we made gains the year just gone by.

What have I found?

Non-fiction reading and writing have been sorely weak, across the board, every year. Open responses were dismal, and even somewhat alarming. We even noticed flags around multiple choice strategies, with questions left blank or answers guessed with no evidence of narrowing the field of possibilities. There has been enough evidence in the numbers that I have had to come to the realization that I was being hypocritical, in a way, if I was saying that I could not effectively use the state testing data and that I did not need to change my teaching. I did, and I have, and yet, I have also tried to keep a real balance between my philosophy around writing (that we write to learn; that we write for authentic purposes) with honing in on skills that I didn’t even know were lacking in my students or my lessons until the data showed me those gaps.

I can’t say this is always a comfortable realization, and I have struggled with how to even write this post on this topic. I imagine there are plenty of folks who might take me to task on this. (If so, please join the conversation and add a comment).

I’m still worried about the shifts in the Common Core, and what the assessments will look like (and how I might need to keep adjusting), and I often feel this internal resistance to viewing my teaching through the results of standardized testing. But I am also a realist. I know my school district places importance on those numbers. And I know that I need to be open for improving my teaching, from whatever direction it comes. I just have to make sure that I don’t lose the heart and center of why I teach. The results so far of my shifts have proved that I seem to be in the right direction: my students’ responses to reading are stronger than ever; they have a much better grasp on the elements of non-fiction;  and our scores on the state tests last year were among the highest gains in our school, and district.

Peace (in the shift),


Book Review: Revisiting “The Hobbit” After All These Years

I’ve been “there and back” quite a few times in my life, as I dove into The Hobbit and cheered on little Bilbo Baggins. But it has been more years than I care to count since I cracked it open. Still, I knew my youngest son would enjoy the adventure, and sure enough, in just a few weeks of read-aloud, we ended the story with Bilbo alive (not dead, as his relatives would like), sitting and smoking his pipe into old age. (And we know Bilbo makes a quick re-appearance with The Fellowship of the Ring before Frodo goes off on his own epic adventure).

So, does the story hold up?

Well, yeah, it surely does. My son and I had many conversations about the story, and he kept peppering me with questions about The Lord of Rings series, which I danced around on tiptoes (Gollum? The ring? Gandalf?) so as not to give too much away for when we shift into that trilogy (which may be soon enough. I used to have two sets of The Lord of Rings and both are missing, given away to book fairs, perhaps. Time for another visit to the library …)

The story really does have the perfect arc of narrative. I hate to reduce a story to its plot outline, but gosh, Tolkien’s story is full of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. You’d think he had been a teacher. Wait! He was. I know this is often a criticism of The Hobbit — its predictable nature — but reading it aloud to someone who knows almost nothing about the stories that will be unfolding ahead was pure magic for me. I was shifting back in that time, too, with my son, remembering when I first discovered The Hobbit somehow or another (it may have been my mother, who was always pressing books into my hand) and how deeply I became engulfed in the story.

Yes, I enjoyed The Hobbit all over again.

Peace (in the comfy hole in the ground),

PS — as a side note, as I was in the midst of reading The Hobbit with my son, I started noticing three or four of my students had also chosen it for their independent reading, which led to more conversations in class. Interesting convergence … or some magic, perhaps?



Diagramming Sports Plays as Visual/Information Literacy


The writing prompt I had for my students yesterday tapped into their energy and enthusiasm around our game of Quidditch. They had to design, diagram, name and then explain in writing a “secret” play for their team. I’ve done versions of this prompt before, but this year, I had on the back of my mind a great video by Bee Foster around the literacies of diagramming out sports plays over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site. (The video — Football Plays — is part of a larger resource by Bee around Redefining Text.)

And this year, I had my interactive board, so after about 25 minutes of writing and drawing and creating, I turned the class over to my students and let them come up to the board, one at a time, and not only visually share their play, but also explain it in a sort of impromptu “how to” session in front of the class. It was pretty fascinating to watch, and I had Bee’s ideas running through my head about the learning that was going on around visual design, movement on a page, expository writing, public speaking and more.


The code for positions are:

  • K: Keeper (goalie)
  • CH: Chaser
  • SK: Seeker
  • B: Beater
  • SL: Sidelines

The dotted lines indicate movement of player and the solid lines show passing of the quaffle among the chasers and keepers, or the bludger among the beaters. Got that? (if not, check out our Quidditch Tutorial video).

Peace (on the field),


Inspired Poetry with Bud the Teacher

I’m starting to write some poetry this month with Bud Hunt (aka Bud the Teacher). Bud, a friend of mine through the National Writing Project, is posting visual prompts each day, and he asks that we consider a poem inspired by the image, and his short bit of writing. What I have always liked about Bud’s poetry prompts (this is maybe the third year?) is how open the direction can be. It’s always cool to see how other people take the idea embedded in the image, and push it around in different ways.

I did write a poem yesterday, but it wasn’t anything too special.

This morning, he had an interesting image and description about water, and what I think is a pebble or rock. (I’m not quite sure but that’s OK. I saw it as I see it, and used what I think I saw.) I also added a podcast of the poem I wrote, using Cinch.

The pebble drops –
I fall with it
splashing, crashing into surface tension
as my outline echoes from the center
on out.
If I could, I would surf this surface viscosity forever,
and never let me fall
but gravity has other ideas –
family, and school, and the whole wealth of obligations
that keep me grounded day in and day out –
so I drop, the pebble,
twisting and turning until I hit the bottom
and wait.

You come, too. Each morning, Bud will be posting an image and inviting you to write a few lines of poetry.

Peace (in the poems),


The Stickman Quidditch Video

Each year, as we approach our annual Quidditch Tournament, a member of our staff works on a video that will get burned into a DVD for all of our sixth graders. Until this year, he has had a group of fifth graders come around and interview us classroom teachers, asking a set series of questions. We, in turn, would come beforehand with nutty answers, spoofing the whole interview process. This year, he wanted to try something new and asked us to create a short video, of any kind.
I decided to try a stopmotion video with Pivot Stickfigure and a few images from my class (We are the blue team: Permafrost). Here’s what I came up with, using the first part of a Quidditch song that I wrote and recorded a few years ago:

Peace (on the stick),