Considering the Strength of Student Passwords

I had an interesting conundrum this week in which a website that I brought my students into had a temporary bug in the security feature that did not compromise the accounts, but it did invalidate a series of security questions that would allow my students to access their passwords if they should forget them or if they were to get lost. Unfortunately, unlike most educational sites these days, this particular one does not have a master list of student usernames and passwords available.

So, the day after I realized the bug (which was fixed), I gave each student a piece of paper and had them write down their username and password for me so that I could make a master list. I had to explain that no one would have access to the list (a few looked nervous, which is good) and that it would only be if they forgot their password or username.

This weekend, I created my list and began to notice some trends around passwords that I never really paid attention to before. And given that I am developing a digital citizenship unit for January, I see now that “Password Education” is going to be part of those lesson planning. While some students did a nice job of mixing up letters and numbers in a way that would be difficult to be hacked, I noticed some other things:

  • One student, out loud in class, announced that he uses the same password for every site. And then he began to list out the sites that he uses: Facebook, YouTube, etc. Another student, one of his friends, announced that was true and that he knew the password. Not a good idea, I told both of them. I suggested he change his common password, and vary it for various sites.
  • One of the usernames in our site appears to be the phone number of the student. Yikes! The site is closed to the public, but still … I found that very odd.
  • A few usernames were their real first and last names. Again, the site is closed. But I specifically said they should come up with a username that is invented. Maybe I did not stress that clear enough.
  • In a few cases, the password was exactly the same as the username. That doesn’t do much good, does it?
  • One student wrote her username and password in sharpie marker on the front cover of her binder. I noticed it when they were filling out my sheet. Not too secure, I told her. She covered it up with a book, as if that would solve the matter.
  • One password was clearly the home address of the student.
  • A couple of the passwords were only three letters. That’s not as bad as some of the above, but the more characters, the harder it is to hack.

Of course, these are sixth graders and their main goal is to be able to remember their usernames and passwords, so they go the easiest route possible. My job is to teach them and remind them how to keep their data safe, and their accounts secure, and along with a conversation this week about it, it will become part of my upcoming digital educational unit, too.

Here are two resources that are handy when talking about passwords.

First, check out this infographic. It’s a good talking point.

Second, check out this site – Password Bird – which creates passwords based on some basic questions, and mixing up the words. I am going to come up with sort of activity that forces them to invent a few possible passwords. Another site — Strong Password Generator — is good, but the passwords that come out of the engine would be difficult for my students to remember, I think, even with the memory hints.

But I like this information from the Strong Password Generator site:

A strong password:
has at least 15 characters;
has uppercase letters;
has lowercase letters;
has numbers;
has symbols, such as ` ! " ? $ ? % ^ & * ( ) _ - + = { [ } ] : ; @ ' ~ # | \ < , > . ? /
is not like your previous passwords;
is not your name;
is not your login;
is not your friend’s name;
is not your family member’s name;
is not a dictionary word;
is not a common name.

What it comes down to is an understanding of WHY we have passwords in the first place. This year, I notice, there is less of an awareness of security of online sites with my students. I’m not sure why that is. Without stirring up too much fear and anxiety, though, I want to inform them of ways they can protect their data, and also (when it comes to social networking sites) their reputations.

Peace (in the password),



A View of Some Imaginary Lands

My students recently completed a project in which they picked apart informational text (travel brochures) and then created their own with the design features of that text. These Imaginary Lands also needed to include some themes of peace, in coordination with our school-wide Peacebuilders program. Here is a collection of the projects pulled together with Animoto and featured at our class YouTube site. I’ll share another day my lesson plan, which I revamped this year in order to tie it to the Common Core.

Peace (in the lands),


Explaining the Occupy Movement


Yesterday morning, I asked a question in our morning work:

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been in the news these days. What do you think the slogan “We are the 99 Percent” means?

I had more blank looks than I have ever seen out of my students. Not only did most of them not know what the Occupy Movement was about, they didn’t even know what Wall Street was. Never mind the 99 Percent (one thought it was about the authenticity of a product someone was selling). In fact, of my 21 students, only three had any inclination of what I was asking them about and of those three, only one had some semblance of facts (mainly because his family drove by the Occupy Boston site recently on their way to a sports game).

I did my best to bring them a balanced view of the movement (stymied when one student asked what “economics” is, causing me to pull back my vocabulary even further). I probably did not do such a great job, although I was sure to balance my explanation with criticism of the movement, too. It’s a complex political situation with many offshoots that require more than I could give in that short period of time. I wish I had had time to show the video (above) that Larry Ferlazzo shared out, but I wonder if the information is too complex for my kids.

What I have been hoping for is that Time for Kids magazine does a cover story on the movement so we could use the reading for more discussions. But the magazine has avoided it almost completely, it seems to me (maybe for the same reasons I have struggled with it).  Waiting for Time for Kids may just be a cop out on my end, but I feel as if I need a “teachable hook” to make it relevant to my students. As I told them, and as I remind them all year, they need to be paying attention to the world and to current events, and the politics of today are going to shape the world they become adults in. They can’t just be living under a blanket, ignoring what is going on around them.

On a related note, my 13 year old son read an article about Occupy in Rolling Stone, and promptly said to me, “I want to go to Occupy Wall Street.” I asked him why. “I want to see it in person. They’re saying something,” he explained. A day later, New York City tossed everyone out of the park where Occupy Wall Street began. But a little Occupy movement has sprung up in our small city’s downtown. I might just take him there and see what he thinks.

Peace (in the movement),
PS — here is a comic I shared last week, poking fun at Occupy. Now I wonder if my students will even “get it” when they see it on our comic site.


What Gaming Looked Like in My Classroom

It was a mix of excitement (“We’re going to play video games?”) to chatter (“How did you do that?” – “Here, like this.” — “Cool. Thanks.”) to challenge (“Why is this sooooo hard … wait … I got it … yeah!”) to surprise (“Some of these games have shooters? In school?”) as I brought my four classes of sixth graders into Gamestar Mechanic yesterday in preparation for a future project around game design and visual literacy. When I mentioned they will be able to design and publish a game to a gaming community of other kids, and maybe take part in a national contest around game design, they were all ears and ready for action. (see yesterday’s post)

At one point, I had a student on my Mac with the Interactive Board up and running. I looked over and a crowd of kids were at the board, giving him advice. Apparently, he gotten to a level he could not master, and his classmates came over to help give him advice at the board. That was one of those “cool” moments for me, when they came together to solve a tricky game challenge.

I had one student who informed me that Minecraft has a teacher’s “shell” that might be perfect for the classroom and “you should really check that out, Mr. H” as I nodded, and made a mental note to do a little more research on Minecraft (which I did and found this wiki all about Minecraft and the classroom). When it comes to gaming, we teachers have to be open to the ideas of our students (but, we also need to be cautious that some of the games they play are not appropriate for school).

We had some odd technical difficulties that had me a bit more crazed than usual, but we found solutions and work-arounds, and the kids were more adaptive than I was at times, it seemed to me (don’t worry – I kept my cool .. no cursing ensued). I never got a real chance to have a full reflective conversation afterwards with them about their thoughts about Gamestar Mechanic. They were gaming right up until the end of class. I had to pry the laptops out of their fingers and kick them out of my room (slight exaggeration but still …)

We’ll be back. And I am certain a high number of kids were playing last night, too.
Peace (in the games),


Video Game Design, STEM Challenge and Visual Literacy


My plan for today is to bring all of my sixth graders up into Gamestar Mechanic to get situated with accounts, play around with the site and get a feel for what is possible. Sometime next month, we will move into a lesson and project around game design. I have to admit: I am curious to see which students latch onto the site and which don’t. I don’t expect every student to be highly wired into gaming but my kids have been open to just about anything I have thrown their way this year (and kids who don’t quite love comics enjoy our webcomic site at Bitstrips).

As I was putting my plans into place last night (and hoping I have access to our computer cart today), I came across this post about the 2011 STEM Video Game Challenge (and the video above, in which last year’s winner explains a bit about where his idea came from and how he went about his game design idea — incredibly insightful and valuable for my lesson! My students will definitely connect with this boy’s message.). As we move into various ways that literacy can extend into the content areas (including visual literacy, which gaming is), I am wondering if this is a kind of contest/challenge that I can take on with my students and what it would look like in the writing classroom. I have some ideas, but now I need to think it through a bit more.

I’m definitely intrigued by the possibilities …

Peace (in the game),
PS — check out this page of winners from last year’s competition.



Podcasting Activity: Introducing … Literary Characters

As we are on the middle of a six week independent reading unit, one topic of discussion is character analysis and character traits. Yesterday, I had my students writing an “introduction” to a character from the book they are reading. On Monday, we will be using our Ipod Touch devices and the Cinch app to record a podcast version of their writing. It’s a nice way to share out what they are reading and keep pushing them to go beyond just writing summaries of what they are reading. (We do everything but summaries for this unit).



I am reading and writing along with them, and the other day, I finished Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Man, what a book! I know I am late to the game with this novel, which has rightly received a slew of accolades over the years. I loved its use of poetry, and setting, and first person narrative. And the connection to music as a sort of lifeline to the world, and the inner music inside of all of us … wow. There is just so much that is good with this book, even if it is sad and emotional. I guess that’s what makes it so great — its heart is not fake.

Anyway, here is my podcast of my writing, in which I introduced the narrator — Billy Jo — to my class.


Peace (in the book),
PS — here are some of the podcasts from last year


Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


For years now, I have been using Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderful The Mysteries of Harris Burdick picture book (the portfolio edition is best) for creative writing prompts and projects. It’s an ingenious collection of illustrations and captions from a “lost writer” whose stories are “missing,” leaving us only with the strange pictures and odd bits of writing beneath them that create many questions. My sixth graders love using Harris Burdick for writing because the illustrations spark incredible curiosity … about the missing stories and about the mystery behind the writer, Harris Burdick. They always want to know if Harris Burdick was real, and I dodge that question with all the expertise I can muster.

Now comes along The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a new collection of short stories inspired by the picture book, but here, famous authors such as Stephen King (and his wife, Tabitha), Kate DiCamillo, Jon Scieszka, M.T. Anderson, Corey Doctorow and a handful of others take a stab at the 14 tales, too. Plus, Lemony Snicket provides his own brand of humorous introduction, casting forth a marvelous conspiracy theory about Harris Burdick and the writers featured in the book. What these novelists spin it out here is just as magical as what my students come up with (although, I still like my students’ stories better but you can put me down as biased on that point.)

What’s interesting to me is how many different directions a single story can go, even if they are all based on a similar illustration. We all have different perceptions and different insights, even if we start or end with the same idea. I’ve noticed this in class, too, but here, these professional writers take the stories on such interesting journeys that even as I was reading them, I was remembering some of the stories that I have written over the years using the same pictures (I write with my students all the time … you should, too). I kept pausing, thinking of the twists and turns on display.

And here’s the thing: Since I had used similar illustrations for similar story writing, it made their writing more visible to me. I was an active thinker the whole way through, noticing a sleight feint of hand here or a quirk in a character that I predicted might come in handy later on in the story or a hint early on that would move us closer to the scene in the picture. It was a pretty fascinating experience.

When my students saw me reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, they perked up. They’re curious, too. The day I finished the book in class during our quiet reading time, I had a line of students waiting to read it next. I have only one copy of the book, but the eagerness on their faces to see what other writers have done was priceless.  The girl who got it first was smiling wide and there was reading envy on the others’ faces. I think I might be making a trip to our photocopy machine one of these days and maybe share a story or two with everyone ….

Peace (in the mystery),


Dissection of the Question

Breaking Apart an Open Response Question

One thing that I have learned in teaching various strategies around open response to my sixth graders over the years is that many have a real difficulty understanding the question itself (this seems more for math than reading). They get hobbled by the vocabulary, or the style in which the question has been written, or they get confused by multiple-part questions. This year, thanks to an interesting workshop that I attended last month around open response work, I am trying to do more work around how to read a question.

So, yesterday, we began some work by reading … only open response questions. We had no ideas what the reading passage was that the question asked about, nor did we care all that much what the answer might be. We were only focused on questions, and I now have a long list of open response questions from various state tests as a resource.

The strategy is three-fold:

    • Circle the action word that you are being asked to do;
    • Underline the main essential points of the question;
    • Number any parts of the question or topics that seem important.

We went through three of four of these questions together on our whiteboard (see image) with students coming up and marking up the sentence while talking through what they were doing, and then they worked on a few questions at their seats, which we then shared out. Our next step is for them to learn how to use a modified two-column chart for organizing their ideas before they start to write. (This is where the numbering of items will come in handy because we can deal with main ideas and supporting details).

It seems a bit odd to be using so much class time for this kind of isolated question dissection, and yet, I am attempting to give them the tools so that they can be the most successful in my assigned open response questions (which is what we mostly do now in our reading units) and on our state’s testing system in the spring. Organization and understanding of what is being asked of them in a question seem be roadblocks for many, and I want them to be confident as they share their thinking.

Peace (in the question),


Writing with My Students: Earth as Experiment

I have been trying to work for more content-area related connections to our mostly-daily writing prompts in class as part of our shift into Common Core writing, and of course, as they write, so do I (and so should you). One resource that has been making my life easier is the blog  simply called Writing Prompts but which is completely made up of visual prompts. Many of them connect nicely with science, math and social studies. And most are very thought-provoking. It’s a wonderful site.


On Friday, we used this one about earth as a science experiment, and it tied in with their recent work in science around the Scientific Method. We talked about what the alien might hypothesize, and then what kind of data collection it might do, and what conclusions it would discover. Then, they had a choice: they could create a fake science experiment write-up, a dialogue skit between the alien and a teacher, or a short story. I wrote this short story with them, using humor to tell my story.

“I can’t stand these planetary science experiments,”  I grumbled, pushing another nebula galaxy towards my best friend, Zingledoop. “It’s so … meaningless. Like, when will we ever need to know how to make a planet?”
”I know. And it always ends in disaster,” Zingledoop replied. He took the galaxy and popped into his nutrient chute. “Remember the last one?”
Of course, I did. I still have a vision of that flattened planet, all smooshed because Zingledoop had sat on it accidentally. We’d thrown that planet away into the intergalactic trash bin, just like the others.
“Maybe this one will be different,” I said hopefully. “What do the instructions say?”
Zingledoop pulled the instructions out of his left nostril and looked it over. “Create a planet with life forms that are destined to destroy the planet. Come up with a hypothesis, data collection and be prepared to write a conclusion of your experiment.”
“Great,” I said. “We’re just going to let them destroy it?”
“Unless we do it first,” Zingledoop said, and we both laughed.
We quickly got down to work. In some ways, we were old pros at this. We’d created our fair share of planets and done plenty of intergalactic science experiments. With this planet, we decided that we would see what happens if we incrementally increased the planet temperatures. With ice caps and large oceans, the place would soon be flooded out. Or at least, that’s what we predicted.  We’d be speeding up time to see if our prediction came true or not.
It was sort of boring. We’d “done” planets. What we wanted were Universes, but our teacher kept telling us “first things first.” So, here we were, creating this planet called …
“What’s this place to be called?” I asked.
Zingledoop looked at the instructions. “Earth,” he answered.
”Earth? That’s a pretty lame name.”
“Yeah. But on the bright side of things, it won’t be around for long.”
We both laughed again.

Peace (in the experiment),


App Review: My Doodle Game

My Doodle Game

I was about one minute into trying out My Doodle Game, an app for the iPad that allows you to make Doodle-Jump style games, when my seven year old demanded (with vigor) that I let him take over and create the game. And by the way, Dad, go away for while and I will call you back when my game is ready to go. So I left the room and came back, and then I played a pretty neat game that my son designed and created within a short amount of time.

My Doodle Game is surprising rich, and robust (and I thank my friend, Skip Via, for showing me how students he is documenting in Alaska are using iPads for this app). Best of all? The app is free. That’s right. Free. (There is a cost for the software version for computers and it runs about $15. I’d rather have free, to be honest. Now, this free cost means that you don’t have access to every character and every option in the pretty extensive library, but there is plenty to do with the free options, including an array of heroes and villains and various objects to place in the path of your little stickman. You can also pay to add more to your library.

If I had a class of iPads (oops, I mean a class of students with iPads … hehehe), I would add My Doodle Game to the list of apps I’d like to see on there. In fact, I’d want more apps to be like this one — shifting the student from player of the game to creator of the game.

See what the kids from Alaska were up to:


Peace (in the app),