Phew … The First Week Sets the Stage

First week of school

This is the first year that I can remember that we started school on a Monday and went five days to Friday. Normally, we come mid-week for a few days and then hit the ground running the next week. Instead, we had five full days and now a three-day weekend before coming back to a short week.

I admit: I was exhausted yesterday afternoon.

But I think my new students – 76 sixth graders — are wonderful, and engaged already. Here’s a bit of what we accomplished in our first five days of school:

  • Community Building (but I wish we had time to have done more … I will write another time about schedule changes this year that have taken away from this)
  • Created accounts and created avatars in our webcomic site
  • Finished up an introductory webcomic (an activity called Pro Card), which gets us ready to dive into our first year real project next week, called Dream Scenes
  • Did two writing prompts, including a creative writing/expository writing/art element about an imaginary treehouse
  • Introduced vocabulary and set the bi-weekly system in motion
  • Read a short story and began to connect with literary concepts (protagonist/antagonist, foreshadowing, etc.)
  • Worked on an organizational chart for planning a literature response piece, which will get written next week
  • Laughed a lot and had students feeling like writers

That last one is important, even if it is not on the standards. It sets the stage for all the hard work and deep writing I hope we can accomplish as the year progresses.

Peace (on Saturday),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: The League of Seven

I introduced by son to the concept of Steampunk with a read-aloud of The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, and he was intrigued by the elements of alternative history (in which electricity is bad) as much as the development of a new book series. Gratz has a nice pacing to his writing, and although this is the first book (we meet only three of the seven heroes who will have to saved the world), those three are interesting.

The story revolves around mythology, with a mix of traditional and non-traditional stories of evil lurking below and ready to rise. In this book, Archie Dent is our protagonist, and he envisions himself the leader of a new League of Seven (each generation has a league to fight evil), although twists at the end change this expectation in intriguing ways. But I won’t give it away.

In this world, Edison is the evil genius, and electricity will help the evil creatures (Titans, in Greek Mythology, I assume) rise from their prisons in the depths of the Earth. Archie’s parents are part of the Septemberists, a collection of people who work to keep the world safe. But they get, well, kidnapped (in a way) and Archie must save them, along with two new friends with different, special abilities.

What unfolds is an adventure and immersion into a world both like and unlike our own, and the League of Seven has us hooked as a read-aloud, and now we wait for the second book (The Dragon Lantern) sometime later this year.

Peace (in the place),
Kevin

Reverberation Effect: How Poetry Beats Prose as a Comment

PreciousConnections

This morning, I followed a link from my friend, Simon, to his post yesterday about connections and disconnections. As always, Simon had me thinking as I was reading and then, afterwards. I wanted to leave a thought for him at his blog, a little flag in the ground to say: I read what you wrote, and it affected me, and now my brain is thinking, wondering.

A few seconds after posting a short comment, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write a poem, that the disparities of the world that Simon wrote about — of a former student struggling to keep power, literally, flowing in order to get a message out to the world — were part of a larger issue of access and technology in the world.

So, I wrote a poem, and shared it with him. Interestingly enough, the poem moved into the opposite direction: it was a poem of relationship of connections between two people. I was working to get at the narrow vision in order to make a point about the larger concept of how we decide where we will spend our energy connecting. I didn’t realize that until I was done writing the poem.

That got me thinking: why do I so often these days take what I have read in a blog post and turn my response into a poem?

I think it points to the power of poetry to get at something deeper. Prose comments on blogs are more of a “I was here” acknowledgement — and appreciated, by the way — but poetry is a “Your words affected me deeply and inspired this.

I wish there were more poems sitting in my blog comment bin. No pressure if you are reading this (and I don’t need a deluge of poems, but dang, that would be cool). Still, it seems like the whole idea of reading and getting inspired is to take that inspiration, and move it into art of some sort, and then share it back. It creates this reverberation effect with the writer. It breaks down the walls between reader and writer.

I know many people are uncomfortable writing poems, never mind writing poems on the fly while reading blog posts, and then, to add to the pressure, posting it on a public space. It’s just one of those things that came to me as I was writing this post about Simon, creating a larger reverberation.

Maybe the ripple will allow you to float on a poem one of these days.

Peace (peacepeacepeacepeace),
Kevin

Our Class Picture (Comic Version)

6H Class Comic Picture 2015

Day One has come and gone, and we dove right into technology yesterday, with identity/avatar creation via Bitstrips for Schools. As always, my sixth graders were highly engaged, helping each other with questions and answers, and learning quite a bit about how we appropriately use our laptops and how we might think about comics as a tool for writing.

Today, I bring the other three classes into the comic site, too, as we move towards our first project of the year called Dream Scenes.

Peace (in the funnies),
Kevin

Here We Go — The Start of School

In just a few hours, I will get to meet and hang out with my new crop of sixth graders for the school year. I’m excited about that, and nervous about the first day. Even though I have a plan in place for beginning our community-building, and even though I have been doing this for a few years now, I still get nervous.

But I slept mostly OK. So, there’s that.

I spent part of the weekend working on student learning and professional practice goals for the year, but those are still “under development” for now. We have some class schedule changes this year, so the timing of the day is a bit disjointed than in the past; and I have some students with specific needs that I need to be cognizant of on a regular basis, and we have a new lunch count system; and add to all that, I have reading assessments already hanging over my head; and ….

Still, this is where we start … at the beginning.

As we begin this new school year, I wanted to share out my latest post over at Middleweb, in which I write back to a former student, as writer to writer more than teacher to student. (I write a monthly column there called Working Draft.)

Read My Letter to a Former Student

Badge for Mr H

Peace (today and everyday),
Kevin

Hello There, Hypertext

I’m in the midst of reading an interesting interview with Ted Nelson, who coined the phrase “hypertext” and then presented about it in a paper in 1965 (the year before I was born). In my mind, I think of the hyperlink/hypertext as the significant element that makes the Internet different/unique from other kinds of texts, and yet, we often forget about the magic of the idea.

A hyperlink, which is just one element of hypertext, not only transports us to other online spaces and media, it creates an associative element to how we write (this will connect to that) and how we read (this will bring me there). It also creates rabbit holes for readers (this will be bring me here, which brings me here, which brings me here, and now, where was I?).

Interestingly, Nelson, who identified himself early on as a filmmaker with screens as storytelling platforms, thinks we have become too narrow-minded on the Web by associating “hyperlink” with “hypertext” and his original idea of connected documents, seen on the screen at the same time along with the “bridge” that connects the documents reminds me of the FedWiki project, in a lot of ways.

In the interview with Nelson on Boing Boing, celebrating the 50 years of the introduction of the concept of hypertext at a conference, some of his answers to questions were very interesting, and worth collecting.

Oh. Yeah. The hyperlink to the interview is here.

No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it. – Ted Nelson

 

There was nothing standing in the way of computers for the public except for imagination, it seemed to me, and so I was trying to supply that. – Ted Nelson

 

Movies are events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the viewer, right? And software—interactive software—is events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the user, and interact, and have consequences. – Ted Nelson

 

I thought hypertext would lead to a millennial system of changes, and so it has, but much less influenced by my own work—my designs and ideas—than I’d hoped. – Ted Nelson

 

Other people’s hypertext just use jump links—that’s what the World Wide Web is, just jump links—whereas I consider it essential to see pages side by side, as in the Talmud, as in medieval manuscripts, as in any number of documents over the centuries. This is an essential part of the electronic document which we don’t have yet. – Ted Nelson

Peace (in the text),
Kevin

 

Straight Outta Somewhere

We walked out of the movie theater last night — three white suburban teenage boys and one white suburban middle-aged male — and I asked them whether they enjoyed the movie. One of the boys has been tracking all of the movies has seen all year, filing away ratings in his own system on his phone. He gave Straight Outta Compton a 93 on his 100 scale, he told me, and the other two boys — one of whom is my son — agreed that the movie was “great.”

When I said some of the scenes of the movie reminded me of what was happening in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities where blacks were near or beyond the boiling point of frustration with police brutality and systematic problems, the three boys went silent, thinking (I hope) and connecting the news headlines to the story. The movie is a fictionalized biopic of the emergence of rap music in LA, told through the story of NWA members.

I thought it was a strong movie, too, with a typical but powerful narrative arc of a “band movie,” although the story and images and music also brought back memories for me.

When NWA first broke on the scene in the late 1980s (along with Public Enemy and others from New York City), I was an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard. My home armory was inner city New Haven, Connecticut, and for much of the six years there, I was the only white soldier in a platoon of black soldiers.

For much of the time, I was an outsider — a white suburban, lower-middle-class college boy working alongside young men and Vietnam veterans from the inner city, where life — I learned by listening and talking — was a very different experience for them than it was for me. In a strange twist, the Armory (now closed) was situated right next to a New Haven prison, so as we did work outside the Armory, soldiers in my platoon would sometimes be calling up to people behind barred windows. College was not on anyone’s radar screen, and living was a day-to-day experience for many.

Here, I heard stories of police beatings, or gang strife in neighborhoods, of who got robbed, of who got away, of whom was fooling with whom, and of the lack of jobs and opportunity. AIDS and HIV were soon topics of conversation, too, as were stories of powerful drugs ravaging the streets. For many, the National Guard income, as a little as it was, was the only reason they were in the military. There was no love of country, or trust of government. Quite the opposite. It was a job, of sorts, that could pay some bills (one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer).

Rap music and what we now call Hip Hop was everywhere, all the time, in our platoon. Boom boxes were standard military equipment in our unit, much to the chagrin of the officers (whom, I should note, were all white men who mostly kept themselves separate from our unit).

I was raised on rock. Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith. The Rolling Stones. Bad Company. Kiss. What they were playing was nothing I ever heard on the radio in the late 198os (how times have changed) and they amused themselves by trying to get me to appreciate “the music of the street”, as they called it. Just as in the movie, when Ice Cube articulates how NWA’s rap music captured the reality of living in the Daryl Gates’ years of Los Angeles (sparking the LA riots that were to come later, following the Rodney King verdict), so too did my fellow soldiers explain how the beats and lyrics of rap spoke to their own experiences with street truth in New Haven.

I’ve never forgotten those years in New Haven. By the end of my time, I was part of the unit, but I know I was still and always separate. My skin color and my upbringing, and the fact that I could drive home to suburbia, was a wall between us that never came down.

In many ways, we spoke different languages and lived in different countries. But I’d like to think and remember that they did let me in to their lives over time, and I let them into mine. I know I learned more from them than they learned from me. I will always deeply appreciate an unofficial mentor that I had, Sergeant Calvin Nelson, who took me under his wing during my first scary days and taught me lessons about life. He was the first person I knew who was a member of the Nation of Islam and the first Vietnam vet I knew up close and personal. He was a calm, patient man worried about supporting his family with his manufacturing job and my relationship with him went a long way with the others.

Being a cultural outsider, as I was for those years, teaches you hard lessons about acceptance (or not), and about listening and compassion, and if you let it, about the world much larger than your own. You realize rather quickly the bubble we all live within as we grow up. Slowly, I made my way in to a community that would have otherwise been forever outside my field of vision. I am wiser for the experience.

We walked to the car last night and I wondered to myself if these three boys came away with a new wrinkle of reality after viewing the movie. Maybe not. It may have been nothing more than a big screen movie, set years in the past. For many people, in many places, the hardships shown in the movie are still a daily reality, and I hope the prospects of art and music transforming the reality is also still a possibility. That, and education.

One can hope …

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Knowing Someone from Afar

for Bonnie

It’s an interesting twist of the digital age — many of us are more connected with more people than ever before, but many of those connections are fragile, held together by words and media and posts and comments. A string of ideas becomes the centerpiece of connections, and our notions of whom we call a “friend” becomes a bit convoluted as a result, doesn’t it?

This morning, I was met with a headline that 1 billion people used Facebook yesterday. People connect. But how deep are the connections? A piece on Medium yesterday took an interesting stance on how people represent themselves in online spaces. We put our best foot forward, the author surmises.

I have been thinking of this concept of identity and connections and friendship the past few days as a very good friend, one I know beyond the wires of social media spaces and one whom I have worked with closely for many years on a variety of projects through the National Writing Project, has been in a difficult transition period, of losing her loved one and cherished life partner.

She has been powerfully articulate on her blog in capturing their lives together, documenting and archiving the love of the years. Many people, myself included, have been leaving her comments of support. No doubt the writing has been an avenue for her in dealing with loss, which moved in slow motion over the past few weeks.

This is what writers do. We write, in good times and in times of struggle. We write to understand the world.

And in her writing of the moments, she has brought us into her world with compassion and voice, and she has made us feel connected to her experiences in a very personal way.

The pieces she has been sharing also had me thinking is how much I feel as if I have known her partner, who just passed away, over the years from the many blog posts and videos and images and more that we have shared over time. I met her partner once in person, I think, and yet, his presence has been felt strongly over the years because my friend was always in the present with him. She represented her life as a partnership with him regularly, and I feel as if I knew him as well as her over the years of our friendship.

I realize there is a certain fallacy to this insight. I don’t really know the full person — who no doubt was much more complicated than I will ever know, as we all are to those outside our emotional circles —  and I am sad now that I never will. I think I knew of the person who loved my friend, and I think I saw a powerful love and partnership between them that made her happy and content. His constant presence in that picture in my mind — of them on beaches, in Israel every year, in concerts, at the breakfast table, reading books and the newspaper, traveling into the city … my mind has many moments of them together — is formed mostly by our digital connections.

And here’s the thing: in her sharing of her life with me, a friend, over the years, he will remain an active presence in the world, even in passing. In that, I will miss him, too, even if our connections were echoes in a digital world of connections. In my mind, at least, his presence will always remain a part of her, and I am thankful for the friendship and partnership that she and I have, and I am sad for her loss.

Here, though, the digital connections fall short. I can’t drive down the street to comfort her and sit with her. I can’t make her coffee, and play guitar with her. I can only send words. Writing is the way I am trying to help her through it. It’s what writers do. We write. I write this, then, for her, and for me.

Peace (for my friend),
Kevin

Gearing Up for Getting Back to School (A Comic Collection)

I’ve been away from blogging for a few weeks as part of a summer tradition, but I have still been writing and creating for August, and that includes making comics. These comics were part of my “anxiety of going back to school” thinking and planning and getting myself ready for another exciting year. We teachers go back on Friday (yikes .. that’s tomorrow) and then students come back for Monday.

These comics were all shared on Twitter but I wanted to bring them all here, too.

That first day of school anxiety

Before the storm

First day of school perspectives

Mr SmartyPants

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin