Book Review: The D-Minus Poems of Jeremy Bloom

Poor Jeremy Bloom. He just can’t get a break in The D-MInus Poems of Jeremy Bloom. Every time he tries to get on the good side of his teacher, Ms. Terranova, something happens: his father rams her new car, or a stink bomb goes off when the teacher is in the rest room or Jeremy falls asleep during an important moment of the school play and chaos ensues or … well, you get the picture unfolding in this “story” of Jeremy’s school year as told through a mixture of short narratives (in the style of an investigative report) and poems that Jeremy writes (but which somehow keep earning him D- grades. If only they were on a standards-based reporting system …)

This short, clever book by prolific author Gordon Korman and his mom, Bernice (OK, time to take a quick detour. How cool is it that Korman wrote a book with him mom? It struck me at the end of the book, when I realized this partnership was not a husband-wife but a mom-son team, that he is just so lucky to have done this book and got it published. Pretty nifty) is somewhat uneven at times. What I kept wondering is: who IS this teacher who reads the poems that Jeremy is writing AND KEEPS GIVING HIM A D-MINUS. I mean, seriously.

The poems are a wide mix of rhyming and non-rhyming, with lots of wordplay and insightfulness, and the topics of the poems are all about Jeremy’s life and his impressions of school, etc. (The book’s subtitle is A Collection of Poems about School, Homework and Life – Sort of) I enjoyed most of the poems here, although it would have been stronger if there had been a more cohesive narrative underpinning the poems. Most seem sort of random, as if he were writing poems and then stuffing them into a notebook, even as the narrative moves us along through the school year.

Overall, The D-Minus Poems of Jeremy Bloom is an enjoyable read during Poetry Month, but I am not sure who the audience in my classroom will be for it.

Peace (in the poems),


Book Review: I Love Rock N’ Roll (Except When I Hate It)

This book, whose full title is I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (Except When I Hate It): Extremely Important Stuff About the Songs and Bands You Love, Hate, Love to Hate, and Hate to Love, is a collection of small pieces about music (whose title reminds one of an Fiona Apple album). The ins and outs of the rock world, with all its tendency towards strangeness and wonder, is filtered through writer Brian Boone’s sense of humor and real love of music. The pieces are small, and fun to read, and you can tell that Boone has honed his craft as a writer by working with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series of book.

In this collection, you will learn more than you need to know about:

  • Bands that fell apart due to artistic differences
  • Bands that changed when its leader left
  • How songs were inspired, and how songs fell apart due to inspiration
  • Misjudgements of some bands (DEVO goes Disney?) and missed opportunities of others
  • How to sell out and why that sucks when your favorite band does it
  • The meaning of some songs that may have puzzled you for years (or not)
  • And much more than you really need to know but still do want to know (because that’s how fans like us operate)

I read this book over two months or so, picking it up now and then, and thoroughly enjoying it. Now, I am going to pass it along to someone in my band (Duke Rushmore) because I know they love rock and roll as much as I do (or love to hate it? Hate to love it? ack) and this book hits the heart of anyone who fancies themselves a rocker or a fan.

Peace (in the amplification),


Working with Wikis, Podcasts and Words

Argnloth: The time of the day when your eyes turn into donuts shaped like frogs

Yesterday was one of those days where, if the superintendent or top school officials popped into my classroom, I’d probably have some explaining to do.

Picture this: computers are spread out about the room, with students milling about, using our class wiki site. Others are jumping up on the back table, using markers to write on chart paper on the wall. A few more are mingling behind my desk. And I am at my computer, with Audacity up and pointing to students sitting in my comfortable teacher seat. There’s the loud hum of activity and social interaction.

It no doubt seemed like unstructured chaos to an outside viewer. But it wasn’t.

Junglebum– The act of getting stung by a wasp while reading a book.

The task at hand was adding invented words to a multi-year online collaborative dictionary project. At the computers, the stations were set up around letters of the alphabet, and students were editing the wiki pages to add their words and definitions. Later, I will have some student “editors” go in and clean up any grammar or other issues.

Quangadoodle –An animal that can draw anything in less then 3 seconds

At the back of the room, they were adding their words to the chart paper, so that this year’s crop of invented words would also exist in physical space, so that all four of my sixth grade classes would have access to the words (for a writing prompt and just because they are always interested in what the other classes are up to).

And my desk was our “podcast” station where I was recording them reading their words and definitions, and creating MP3 files, which have been uploaded and will be connected to their words in the larger dictionary project. And that project is a creative way for us to end our entire unit on Word Origins, and our inquiry into how words make their way into the English language.

It may have seemed like chaos but there was rhyme and reason, and rationale, behind it all. Really.

Wumpyflapy– amazing, engrossing, fantastic. example: This book is so wumpyflapy!

Peace (in the words),

Still writing poems …. Cluttered Memories

It’s Day 26 and I am still writing poems almost every day with Bud Hunt, who provides images for inspiration at his blog site. I liked today’s poem, so I figured I would share it out. (You can see the image that he provided here).

Cluttered Memories

You hide in here with my scrapbooks
my photos
my poems, my stories, my scripts
amid cluttered boxes of old garments
that no longer fit
in a space between the hours in which I live
I think, today’s the day I look for you,
but then, again, I forget.

The podcast of the poem is here and embedded down below.


Peace (amid the poems),


Days in a Sentence on a Glog

Over at our National Writing Project iAnthology social networking site, I hosted a writing prompt this past week called Day in a Sentence (which used to be a regular weekly writing activity here and in other spaces). I love how folks boil down their day or their week into a single reflective sentence. And the one sentence format makes it easy to create interesting projects. I took the collection of Days in a Sentences this week and put them into a Glog.

Peace (in the days),

PS — Do you have a sentence? Add it as a comment.

Collaborative Story Writing in the Classroom with Storybird

  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home
  • The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home

I had one of my classes yesterday work collaboratively on creating a picture book story with Storybird (I am using it this morning with younger students in a school I am visiting). My sixth graders sure had a lot of fun with their story: The Giraffe Who Made His Way Home. I had the site up on our Interactive Board, and they were using the pen to choose images and then we “talked” through each element of the story. I had to guide them a bit around a “plot” because they would clearly have gone off in a lot of directions (note to self: remember that for today).

What I like about Storybird is that the story is inspired by the art, and not the other way around. This is a different kind of writing to be doing, particularly for students. Most of the time, they will come up with a story, and then be asked to illustrate it after the story is written. Storybird turns that idea on its head. This can be tricky at times (if there are not enough good images to use) and also inspiring when you see the artwork collections.

Here’s what I noticed:

  • The collaborative storywriting forces cooperation, and ideas need to get fleshed out by the group. Some students deal with this better than others. In the end, I guided discussions on each page of the story as best as I could and then helped them reach consensus and then we moved on.
  • I kept talking through (modeling) how I envisioned their story might be going. “What will happen next?” I asked a number of times, and when I knew time was running out on us, it was “how will Bucky get home?” What I was really saying is, it’s time to tie up the loose ends and  finish the story.
  • The students had a lot of choices for art and there were no disagreements when one chose a piece of art. Instead, the chosen piece immediately sparked ideas. “What about if …” is a phrase I heard a lot. There was also a lot of laughing and giggling at the artwork. That’s a good sound to have.
  • I could see using this collaborative activity as a guide for reinforcing story development, and then having students work in teams or by themselves to develop their own story. I’d have to think more about how the pre-writing activity might happen, since the story is dictated by the art. Maybe a writer chooses the art, puts it in sequence and then does pre-writing from there.
  • And although our collaboration was in physical space, I see an option in Storybird for collaborating on a book project with someone else on the site. That might open up the doors for some other kinds of writing partnerships.

I did check out the “teacher information” at Storybird and it seems like they have a pretty decent model for setting up a classroom account, and giving accounts to students. There is a free version, which has some limits, and a paid version.

Peace (in the story),


Digital Storytelling: The Virtual Art Museum

I was gathering some resources for an upcoming presentation around digital storytelling and came back upon this project — The Virtual Art Museum — from three years ago. It is a collaboration between myself, the art teacher and our librarian. They secured a grant to gain access to the artwork and then helped students compose reactions to the art. I worked on the technical side of things, with the podcasts and then with the digital stories. My colleagues than arranged a day when computers were set up for visitors to listen to the digital stories and learn more about art. I love how the voices of students get into the mix, and the collaborative nature of the project that touches on different curriculum.


Peace (in the art),


Inventing New Words with The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary

We’re almost at the end of our unit around Word Origins, and the final activity is for my sixth graders to invent a handful of new words (think: Frindle) and then put their very best one into our online wiki Crazy Collaborative Dictionary. This growing home to invented words has been underway in my classroom since 2005 and each year, my students add to it. It’s a fun assignment that involves creativity, writing, wikis and podcasting.

Here is a collection of words from the past that I will be sharing with our students today before giving them the assignment (which is basically to invent three new words with definitions, and then use those three words in a one-paragraph story.)


And here is the link to our Crazy Collaborative Dictionary.

Peace (in the words),
PS — Check out the origins of the novel, Frindle. Funny.


When Computers Write The Stories

There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the educational communities that I am part of around computer-based assessments of student writing, and what that means for the teacher (less work?) and students (inauthentic audience!) and companies (profit!) when writing is put into a computer program for assessment. You can probably tell by my snarky comment inserts that I am not all that supportive of the idea, although I understand the reasons why some districts might consider moving into that direction for some writing assessments (college entry exams have long used these kinds of automated grading systems).

See Audrey Watters great post about this issue on Hack Education

In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy profiles the flip side of that coin: computer software programs that are now beginning to write news stories for publication by tapping into data streams. Sports and financial news are the first steps to this kind of “writing” but Levy brings up a lot of intriguing issues, such as: would a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism? Well, I’d like to say, no, but can we really discount that sometime in the future, a program might be able to analyze some obscure data and create an article that would shake the world? It can happen. The folks at companies like Narrative Science (great name, btw) suggest that it may very well happen in as little as five years from now.

For now, the system built by Narrative Science is writing and publishing news articles on things like Little League and sports games and other areas of the news world that newspapers and media companies are ignoring. They are finding an audience niche, for sure, and actually, after reading the sample that Levy provided (and even this one from Forbes Magazine), the computer didn’t do so bad with the writing (as a former reporter, I’ve seen worse copy by fellow journalists). Of course, the computer-based writing misses the nuances of speech and other elements of style, but the developers claim they can tweak the program any way they want, and suggest that they could have the software cover the financial news in the style of Damon Runyan (I, for one, want to read that. See? Maybe there is an audience).

But, as someone who views himself as a writer, what does this all mean? If a machine writes, is it really writing as we know it? What does this do to the implicit compositional agreement that readers have with the writers, and what does this all do to that compact that if you read what I write, then we share a special connection? Does this idea even matter in these days when those bonds are very loose, and getting looser every day? I find it fascinating to think about. Could a machine write a poem? And what would that poem read like?

In my view, there is still something sacred about the process of putting ideas down on paper or a screen, and there is something very human about that experience. While I am intrigued by the direction that software might take writing, it scares me more than a little to know that someday, it will be difficult to judge whether a writer is a human or a machine. (And, why does it matter? Does it matter?) It brings me back to my complaints about automated assessments — the writer is composing ideas for some big black hole of nothingness, only a score. The act of writing has to be more than that.

Writing is about connecting with others, about making sense of the world around us.

Can a software program do that?

Peace (in the machine),