Words Upon the Wall: A Gift of Song

For everyone who is in all of my various online networks and communities and adventures, I thank you. Here is a song, with some animated words, as my humble thanks for all the inspiration and support you give me throughout the year as I write and explore and learn.

Peace (with words on the wall),

Book Review: The Moor’s Account

I love this line right near the end of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, in which our protagonist — Estebanico — remarks about how those who tell the stories of history shape the history itself in the collective memories of those who come afterwards.

Moors Account

If only …

The Moor’s Account is a engrossing telling of the exploration of the Americas by the Spaniards, through the eyes of a Muslim slave — Mustafa al-Zamori, but whom the Spaniards named Estebanico. This hook by the talented Lalami gives the reader insights into the New World, in all of its wonders and all of its hardships. Lalimi notes in her acknowledgements that the story is fictional (thus, that quote I shared is sort of a meta-narrative anchor point), and that there is nothing known about the real Estevanico, who only gets mentioned in one line of one of the explorer’s own stories.

From that mention, Lalami spins a story of his life, and his travels, and finally, his freedom that comes from his wits and understanding of what freedom from enslavements — both physical as well as spiritual — means. Her story gives the Story of the America’s a new point from which to view history, and if that is not one of the purposes of writing, I don’t know what is.

Peace (in the explore),

Video Game Design: Playtesting and Feedback

Playtesting Peer Review 2014
In designing games, as in writing, a valuable step to the process is to gather feedback from someone outside of your own head. During our science-based video game design unit, we play-test each other’s games, and work on giving feedback to what is noticed. While this happens quite a bit informally (“Hey, anyone want to try my game?” – a pretty common refrain in my classroom these days), I do try to formalize it a bit. The form we use comes from a new book on systems thinking, but I also had a similar form that I had made on my own.

I like how this new form incorporates the warm/cool feedback concept, and allows for reaction notes from the game designer. Obviously, this activity began with a mini-lesson on giving constructive feedback to other game designers, and how to use warm/cool feedback on someone else’s work.

It’s still interesting how some students read and accept the feedback, and ask for clarification from the play-testers, making adjustments to their projects, while others just shrug and go on as if the process never happened. They can’t get out of their own heads, and see the game objectively (“Well, I BEAT that level. You should, too. It’s easy.” — a student said this to me the other day. Me: “Well, you BUILT that level, so you know it inside and out. It’s not easy at all if you don’t know it.”). This is part of the learning process.

Peace (in the game),


On the Hunt for Words (A Poem of Found Poetry)

Found – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

I am taking part in a small, open MOOC through some friends in San Diego, using an education book called The Writing Thief as its anchor text (and the book itself is about mentor texts). There is a roll-out of Make Cycle activities and the most recent one asks us to do a word scavenger hunt in the world.

I decided to use an online random poetry line generator, just to see what it would spit out, and whether or not I could pull lines of a random poem together into something with structure (sort of). Interestingly, I think it works, particularly when you add visual media to the lines.

What helped is that the reference to a poet happened twice for me, so I used those lines as bookends.

Peace (in the hunt),

Video Game Design: Storyboarding the Game

Cell Video Game Storyboard Collage 2014

One of the things I force my students to pay attention to (some resist) is the concept of storyboarding out their science-based video game projects. But I know, from experience, how important it is to have a map forward, even if you abandon the map along the way for more creative terrain.

As a teacher, the storyboard also provides me with a way to see what they are thinking as they begin the design phase, as well as gives us discussion points on which to talk through the game design, science concepts and story ideas in a workshop-style mode.

You can read more about what I wrote about storyboarding, including the sharing of resources, over at the Gamestar Mechanic teacher site, from a few years ago.

Peace (in the boards),

Book Review: The Peripheral

This book — The Peripheral — really requires the reader to dig in. You need to wrap your head around some pretty complex ideas about Time and Technology. William Gibson, whose books have supercharged our thinking (or at least, mine but probably yours, too … you just might not know it) around digital media, cyberspace and interactive media, does not write down to the reader.

What I am saying is that I am almost gave up on The Peripheral — and even had a post about reading frustration playing out in my head at one point — but I am now glad that I didn’t. But, yeah, I was angry at Gibson for the first few chapters because the story immerses you into something that you need to sort of figure out for yourself as you go along. Background knowledge? Not really activated. Gibson does not hand the story to you. Your brain will be firing on all cylinders here, trying to find some anchors to the world he has imagined.

I know I needed a quiet space (not easy in my household) for an extended stretch to allow this story to wash over me, to draw me in, and when that happened, I was hooked, line and sinker. Unfortunately, every time I put it down for a spell, I’d be lost for a bit when I got back into the story. Again … brain working.

I won’t give a full synopsis here, but the story centers on two characters — one from the future (or present) and another from the past (or present) whose time trajectory has been altered by the future (or present). Someone sees something they should not have seen while inside a game (or is it a game?), and someone else now wants that person dead. From this plotline, the story unfolds. Peripherals are live avatars of sorts that people use to interact in spaces in other times … oh heck … you’ll have to read it to understand it.

The upshot: Gibson is in fine form here as a writer whose visions of the possibility of technology create a fictional landscape where things are possible that you never thought were possible. It’s a wild ride in The Peripheral. And if you are lost and disoriented at times, blame Gibson, not me. It’s part of the story, I suspect.

Peace (in the peripheral),

PS — here is an excerpt from the book.

New Yorker: Hollywood and Vine

Clockwise from top: the digital stars KingBach, Tyler Oakley, Brittany Furlan, Joey Graceffa, and Cam and Nash.


Did anyone else read the article in New Yorker called Hollywood and Vine, about the emergence of viral video sharing and how frightened Hollywood is becoming of where young people are watching video? I was intrigued, and wondering how folks are using the 6 second Vine app (and the slightly longer Instagram video sharing) to create small movies with vast and young audiences, and then I realized: it’s becoming all about audience and profit.

It’s not about art.


But, darn it, it should be. Our media tools have opened up some amazing possibilities, and yet, as writer/reporter Tad Friend follows some famous “Viners” around, he notices that every shot for the Vine flick (all 6 seconds of it) is done with hopes of garnering a larger audience of followers and likers, and that is done in hopes of getting commercial ventures (like Taco Bell and others) to pay the Viners for using products in their flicks. The Viners do voluntary product placements. They reach out to corporations. They aim for the paycheck.

Ack. Gag. Repeat (or loop, maybe).

Is this what we are moving into now? Hybrid media making as hybrid advertising? I am not naive. I know businesses look to trends and then dig their claws in. They entice media makers. They sometimes “remix” (in a bad way) close enough to resemble the original, and hope no one is noticing. And I know people need to make a living.

But I can’t help but be dismayed and worried that the shift into this powerful movie-making culture is really about an “all eyes on me now” mentality, where the art that is made is not made for art, but for commercial sensibilities. This is not a knock of the selfie-generation. Plenty of people are making interesting movies that focus the lens on the self. This is a knock against using the self to sell stuff to those who are watching your self.

I’ll end this bloggy diatribe of a middle-aged, middle-class white male  (ie, probably out of the loop, so to speak, with the culture featured in the article) with this belief:

I want my students, and my own children, to see the possibilities of creating media the way I see it: an ocean of possibilities that allow you to express yourself in new and interesting ways, with (yes) a potential audience that can connect and further your art. Let art be the center of what you do.

Is that too much to ask?

Peace (in the wonder),


Video Game Design: Storyframes as Narrative Architecture

Moving into a unit about video game design also means talking about how to tell a story in ways different than a short story or traditional narrative. I talk to my students about how they should see their science-based video game as a story that the reader will play. They should be entertained, and challenged, and also educated about cells (the science topic that is the centerpiece of the video game design project)

I’ve come to call this the “storyframe” of the video game (rhyming is helpful technique). The story is the narrative wrapper in which the game play itself is situated.

Of all the elements of our game design, this is one of the trickiest for my students. First of all, there are the confines of Gamestar Mechanic, which allows text in the title of the start of the game and at every level, but not a whole lot of room. Students can earn message blocks, which are handy, and they can earn some sprites that “talk” (via text messages).

What must occur is the use of metaphor (this represents that), focused narrative text that moves the player/reader along on their journey through the game system, and a sense of flow. That’s a lot to ask for from a sixth grader, but they can do it. It does require me to be conferencing a lot, reminding them of what good games do (and how to make a game better), and feedback from peers during the initial stages of design.

You know what the best resource is for this discussion around storyframes? The Magic School Bus series. No one did it better, particularly when we talk about science and storytelling. And, what franchise effectively jumped across mediums so well? From picture books to television show to video games, The Magic School Bus showed how transmedia can work.

Building that kind of story? Well, that’s what my students are in the midst in right now.

Peace (in the construction of story),

Slice of Life: Learning Minecraft

(This is part of Slice of Life, a weekly writing feature hosted via Two Writing Teachers. Narrow your lens. Write. Share.)


You’d think with all the video game design work I do with my students that I would have already been kneedeep into Minecraft. My students certainly are. Me? Not much. No real reason except time to dive in always slips away from me, but now that my youngest son is using and loving Minecraft (and even joined a Minecraft club at our public library), I figured it was time to dip my toes into the blocks, so to speak.

So, I asked my son, teach me Minecraft.

Doghouse construction

And we proceeded to spend about 45 minutes with the Minecraft App (we also have the fuller version on the laptop), and together, he helped me build a doghouse for the dog/wolf that we spawned in the world that I began to create when we started to play in Creative — not Survival — mode. (Getting the vocabulary down …) I had to remind him to talk me through the learning, not do it himself. (such a teacher)

OK, so now I get a bit of the appeal of Minecraft. I was never quite oblivious to it but I can see how the building and wandering in the world is a pretty fascinating experience. I spent some time “flying” high above the world, watching the contours being drawn out in each direction. That was pretty nifty, to think we were in the map as it was being made.

And the dogs seemed pretty happy.

Peace (in the craft),

Video Game Design: Off-Screen Hacking Uno

hacking uno

We don’t spend every teaching/learning moment doing game design, but I suspect that might be the impression some folks get if they read my blog. We do a lot of other kinds of writing and reading activities. And we are not always on the computer either.

One of the ways I introduce and reinforce game design elements is through hacking of other games. Some years, we hack chess. This year, I pulled out my decks of UNO cards, and over a series of days (which sometimes are far and few between as we do other things), my students have been redesigning the game of UNO.

The supplies are simple: a deck of UNO cards. But I did introduce the game variable of dice one day, which led to interesting discussions in the groups about whether dice would improve their concept or not. Most have not used the dice, even though they were all excited about it.

They have been working on finalizing the Rules of Play for their hacked card games, and one of these days, I will separate each group and reform them in a Jigsaw Activity, so that every new group has three to four new games to play, with an “expert” from the original groups to teach their classmates.

Hacking Uno Wordcloud
(Names of New UNO Games)

We then use the UNO game development as points of discussion when we shift into our Science-based Video Game Project, now underway. Hacking UNO provides for collaborative discussions on game design, and creativity, and collaborative writing, while also connecting nicely to the larger project now underway.

Peace (in the cards),