(Abandoned) Book Review: The Doom Machine

All the reviews said The Doom Machine was a great read. It came highly recommended from our school librarian. But … eh … I couldn’t finish it. I don’t know if it was me or the book, but I could not get my mind past Mark Teague’s writing. While I have loved his work in picture books (The Dear Mrs. LaRue books are a riot) and find him to be funny and imaginative as a storyteller, The Doom Machine could not hold my interest, even with the neat drawings and sci-fi element. And I kept with it for almost 120 pages, thinking: this is bound to change for the better at any moment.

It didn’t. The writing felt choppy, and lacked a certain flow. It was as if he were trying to fit his picture book writing style into a novel format. That doesn’t work. (Which, if you think about it, is an interesting ideas — that the genre influences the writing, and how does a master of one genre make the switch?)

I put the book down and stuffed it into the pile of books for my classroom. Now, as I write that, I wonder if someone will say, You don’t like it but you’re going to put it in front of your students? Good question! Yes. I’m not the arbiter of everything that’s good (again, most reviewers of the book gave it high marks), and I bet someone will like this story of a boy and girl on an alien spaceship trying to save the world.

It just won’t be me.

Peace (in the doom of the book),


Inviting You into Days in a Sentence

Hello out thereeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

I’d like to invite you to join our reflective Days in a Sentence collaboration. It’s just another quick way to take a deep breath, reflect in writing and then connect with others of us who also need a moment to think bigger, wider, deeper about what is going on in the days of our lives (random soap opera reference).

Here’s how it works:

  • Think about a moment in your, a single day or even the entire week
  • Boil it down to a single reflective sentence
  • Use the comment feature on this blog post to share your writing
  • Sometime over the weekend, I will gather the Days and publish them together

It’s easy and it’s open to anyone. Come write with us!

Here is mine:

I gave the most enthusiastic cheer of the week as our technology dude told me that while I was meeting with parents in our Curriculum Night, he had finally finished replacing all of the keyboards on our old PC cart, which means I can finally do our beginning-of-the-year digital story project.

I can’t wait to read your reflective sentence.

Peace (in the moment),


Remembering 9/11: A Memory Project

Our sixth graders are too young to remember 9/11. But like many schools, we wanted to honor the memory of the loss and tragedy during the 10th anniversary and keep it part of our current history of how the world can change on an instant. So my social studies colleague designed a family interview project, and I put a voice recorder in his hands (his first time trying out podcasting). My role here was mostly only media producer, taking the voices of our students and some footage of the Gallery Walk posters, and putting them together. I hope you find it as powerful as we did.

Peace (in the shadows),


Data, Inquiry, Action, Teaching

The other day, I was reading and then re-reading a post by Bud Hunt about teacher inquiry and data collection, and the balance he talks about in regards to data analysis and hard numbers.

Bud wrote:

“Teachers, of all people, should have a good and always developing sense of this: they should know and understand what it means to measure, and how measurement affects the thing you’re measuring, and how there are ways other than percentages and standard deviations to explore vital areas of life and living and learning.”

His post crossed my mind again over the weekend, as I was sorting through a large stack of Benchmark Reading Assessment folders. This “data set” represents my current students. I try to be organized here, so I had a roster sheet from each class and began to mark down the Independent, Instructional and Hard levels for every child. I then used a highlighter to begin color-coding the instructional levels of every student so I have an idea of grade-level reading, from the data of the Benchmark Assessments. The visual helps.

Later, I pulled out a writing sample that I gave my students this past week. They had to write a paragraph response to a question about protagonist and antagonist from the story Rikki Tikki Tavi, using evidence from the story to support their ideas. I went through these short pieces, reading for paragraph structure and also for content. I made notes on my master roster sheet about where they are as writers in the early stage in the sixth grade.

When I am done here, I will have an overview of what my classes of young readers and writers look like. I know it won’t be perfect. There are all sorts of reasons why the data might not be accurate: perhaps last year’s teacher didn’t administer the Benchmark the same way that I do; maybe they had a bad day when I asked them to write the paragraph; etc. But at this stage in the year, I am looking to get both an overall impression of where the classes are at and where individual students are at.

And then, at our staff meeting, we started to get information about last year’s state testing scores (MCAS). I can’t share the results yet due to a state-issued embargo, but I am starting to crunch those numbers, too, not only to see if changes in the curriculum last year made a difference, but also, to identify this year’s students who might need some extra help or observation.

And finally, over at our iAnthology network, one of this week’s writing prompts from Janet Ilko is all about teacher inquiry and what it looks like in our classroom. It’s like the week of inquiry and data!

And now, thinking back a bit to Bud, I want to remember that the numbers from all of these different areas (Benchmark, paragraph, MCAS, etc), while important, is not everything and certainly no Knight on a Horse to the Rescue. The data collection will guide my planning and help with curriculum changes, but it will be my day-to-day observations and adjustments and flexibility that I hope will make a difference in their growth as readers and writers, but also as people.

Which brings me to yet another related point: I may be working with two UMass professors this year on a classroom research inquiry project around my students and their use of digital tools for composition both inside and outside the classroom. We’re curious about overlap, or not. Much of that inquiry will be observation and interview — the “data” will be what they see, even we know there will be many limitations to what students will let you see of their lives. I may keep coming back to Bud’s post as we move forward, as a gentle reminder of the complexities of classroom inquiry research.

Peace (in the inquiry),


Releasing Reflective Days in a Haiku

I put out a call last week for a version of Day in a Sentence called Day in a Haiku. That little twist produced some interesting poems.

Gail P. captured the essence of summer’s ending.

Summer’s days are few
but it’s heat still lingers on.
Come cool autumn breeze.


Amanda notes how routines give a rhythm to things, and at the start of the school year, routines are key.

Grateful for routine
and savoring each moment
with new-found focus.


I love this one by Joe. It is just so poetic and thoughtful. It has a calm essence to it, doesn’t it?

The quiet stillness
of anxious first impressions
is far too short lived


I was pleasantly surprised to find not one, but two gems from Linda. Both are about nature. Close your eyes and see the moments.

Summer memories
linger in the warm air
as I welcome today

Strong cascades of rain
cover the saturated ground
with wonder and fear


And Britton‘s poem is like a camera. I can see the empty nests.

September highway.
Swallows gone, nests abandoned.
Half a moon rises

I had shared a haiku when I put out the call for reflections. But time has passed and I have another one to share now that I have been observing my new students.

Eager faces watch
Wait, with pens poised, writing lives
in fresh, new notebooks

Thanks to my writing friends and I hope you can join us when we next do Days in a Sentence. If you have a haiku you’d like to share, just add it into the comment of this post. The more, the merrier. Consider yourself invited.

Peace (in the reflections),


Inside Empty Spaces: Music as a Means of Healing

In the years after 9/11, I remember looking to writers and musicians to help me frame some understanding of the event. I wasn’t directly directly affected by the 9/11 attacks — I didn’t know anyone who was killed personally, but there have been ripples of impact over time: a brother-in-law who worked in the rebuilt wing of the Pentagon; two friends who have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq; another friend who used to work in the towers and was there during the first bombing attempt.

As I turned to the arts for help in framing some understanding, there wasn’t much there, in my opinion. Some pieces in The New Yorker were eloquent and moving and were perfectly suited to the days following, but where are all the novelists making sense or at least trying to make sense of the event? (The only book that, for me, has done so is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That moved me beyond measure, and I still think of Foer’s book from time to time.)

But when Bruce Springsteen came out with his The Rising album, and I sat down with it for the first time with headphones — just me and the music — I realized that Bruce had created what I was looking for at the time. It’s not a perfect album. An even more stripped-down production would have been more powerful. Yet, Bruce captures the feeling of loss and recovery of a catastrophic event on both small and large scales that it touched me as a listener in a way that only music can do.

This week, my friend Paul Hankins was writing about how he was using a song from the album in his school to remember 9/11 with students, and it reminded me how I had not listened to The Rising in so long. I had pushed it away, I guess. I dug The Rising out, and found myself back in that moment of remembering the power of the music again. The power of the songwriter to get at the heart of something bigger than it seems.

Three songs stand out for me because they are carved out of the empty spaces of people who are not coming back. The ghosts of memory haunt the music here. And Bruce sought to show the cycle of loss and recovery in the shadows of love and tragedy:

You’re Missing

My City of Ruins

The Rising

Peace (with music),


They Novel They’re Writing

They were so cute. The three of them, trying to muster up the courage to tell me something just as class was about to begin, all the while they’re dancing around each other. They can’t decide who should speak.

One of my students began, “Mr. H, well … we …” and then she pushed her friend forward. “You tell him.”

The next girl clutched a bunch of paper to her chest. “The three of us are …” and her voice faded.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class is waiting for me to come to the front of the room and everyone has now turned to see where I am and what I am doing. The three girls turn to their classmates. One says, “You don’t need to listen!” Not in a mean tone, but in a playful tone. They know they are being overheard by friends and the class.

I remain patient, wondering what these three girls are trying to tell me. I resist the urge to say, Get on with it already! I have a class to run! No. Something interesting is going on here. We’ve only been together here in school for a week, so maybe they are trying to figure out how much trust they can put in me. What kind of teacher is he anyway? they are probably wondering. My hope is that it won’t be long before that possible thought isn’t even a question for them as writers.

The first girl steps forward again. “Mr H, we’re writing a novel.”

And with that word now off the tip of her tongue, its like some dam has broken free. They all start talking in a sing-song way about the book they have started to write collaboratively, with three main characters (and each quickly explains a character to me), and each girl is taking on the writing of a single character, and how they are weaving the story together from the three narratives and perspectives. The other two girls go to their notebooks and pull out papers to show me, as if they need to show me physical evidence to prove they have a novel underway. One even shows me an illustration “for the back cover of the book.” It’s an image of three girls walking, arms around each other as friends.

And then, the kicker. One girls says, “Mr H, when we are done with the first chapter, could you … read it for us?”

If it were proper to do so, I would scoop these three girls up in a hug for inviting me into their writing space. Instead, I can only give them words and hope that will be enough. “Yes! Absolutely! I would love to read the first chapter of your novel. And I would love to read the novel, too. That’s so exciting!”

I give them a smile, and they are now all caught up in the magic of writing and expectations, and I hope all of their classmates are still listening, and being inspired by the scene in the back of the room.

I can’t wait to read their story.

Peace (in the sharing),


Knowing Names

We’re a week into school and once again, somehow, I know almost every child’s name. If you teach in a self-contained classroom, that’s relatively easy. You see the same group of students all day. They get burned into your mind easily enough. But if, like me, you have multiple classes and almost 80 overall students, it gets a bit trickier at the start of the year to track who is who and who they are. That’s a lot of faces to quickly implant on your memory banks, which (if you are like me) are getting older and rustier, and have been lulled into relative inactivity by the end of the summer.

And each first day of school as I stare out into four classrooms of kids, I think: I am never going to remember all of these names.

But I do. And I try to do it as quickly as possible so that they feel like true members of the classroom, as part of the community. Names have power to them, and there is power in recognizing someone for who they are, too. I want them to connect with them early on, so that later on, any rough spots become smoother by our early connections. So, when they are writing in class these days, I am staring at their faces, mumbling their names, thinking of siblings I had, and coming up with memory tricks, if needed. (I have warned them that if I am saying their names while looking at them, don’t worry. I am not going to crazy.)

The first step to getting know and understand my new students as people is to get to know them by their names.

Peace (in the memory cells),


Supporting Teachers at Gamestar Mechanic

This summer, I used Gamestar Mechanic as a main portal into gaming with a summer camp program that I co-taught with another Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleague. We really liked the site as a teaching tool, and the kids (for the most part) thought it was a fun way to learn about game design. Basically, you play video games to learn about how to make video games, and then you make games that you publish to the Gamestar community. Not long after the camp ended, the folks at Gamestar emailed me to say they were starting a project to support teachers, and they were looking for lesson plans that used the site.

Would I contribute?

I was interested, but I told them that I was frankly a little tired of sites asking me to give my writing up for free. They countered with an offer to give me some membership perks if I submitted a lesson plan. I agreed. My lesson plan revolves around the connections between game design and the writing process, particularly around storyboarding or idea mapping. There are just three gaming lesson plans up on the site right now, but I can see it being valuable for teachers, whether they use Gamestar or not.

The Teacher Resources at Gamestar Mechanic

At the site, there are various resources for teachers — including informational handouts, videos and also a few sample games that you can play without a site membership, just to give you a taste of what the experience is about as a player. Really, though, it is the experience of the game creator that I have been most interested in these days. Gamestar is one way in to that idea.
Peace (in the gaming),
PS — I wrote about my resources at NWP’s Digital Is, but here they are again:
Anyway, if you are interested in looking at the resources that I created and posted:


Anyway, if you are interested in looking at the resources that I created and posted:

Graphic Book Review: The Influencing Machine

Influenced heavily by the work of Scott McCloud, radio host/media critic Brooke Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld take a deep look into the ways in which we are influenced by media, and the ways that we influence media. Told through a sort of historical lens, Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On The Media takes apart ways in which culture has been impacted by public relations by government officials; the rise of radio and television in marketing a world vision; and how technology is increasingly playing a role in both amplifying voices (for good or ill).

I give props to Neufield’s artwork here, which creatively and playfully tells its own story even as Gladstone’s writing shines through as  critic and a self-professed lover of all things media (she is a host for On the Media radio show). The Influencing Machine is a prime example of ways in which the visual text is as rich as the written text on a non-fictional scale. I found myself pretty interested in what Gladstone had to say, but I also have a history in journalism as a newspaper reporter and junky. I wonder if the general public would stay with this book?

If you are a teacher of high school or college journalism, The Influencing Machine is worth a look, as it may give your students another perspective on ways that media shapes our world, and how it can be both a boon for the otherwise powerless and a weapon for rhetoric by those in power. I imagine that Gladstone comes from the political left, but her graphic non-fiction here takes dead aim across the board.

In the end, her message is one that we all do need to hear: stay alert and don’t let the powerful whisper in your ear, and use the advantages of media for your own benefit. Her call for us to be individuals in the face of media overload, and not be content as just passive consumers, is even more important as the world of journalism does a slow dive. But we need filters, too.

She writes: “…the media cover the world like cloudy water. We have to consciously filter it. In an era when everything is asserted and anything denied, we really need to know who we are and how our brains work (128).”

I agree.

Peace (in the media),