My (Teaching) Writing Goals and the Start of Digital Portfolios

My sixth students are in the midst of developing some writing goals for themselves for the school year. They’re doing this work as their very first pieces of writing in Google Apps in Education system, which we activated last week for them, by first brainstorming in Google Docs and then moving into Google Slides to create a “writing goals” presentation.

All of this goal-setting is the start of a digital portfolio system I am piloting this year with our sixth graders (which is connected to an inquiry project that came out of the Making Learning Connected MOOC this past summer), and I am spending the year putting things into place for what this will look like. I’m learning as I go, to be frank. I still don’t have a clear picture of the “finished project” and am working on the best way to have them collect work and reflect on their own writing in a meaningful way.

Luckily, I have a few upcoming conferences in October (at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site and at the online 4C Digital Writing Conference event) where student writing portfolios are topics of sessions. I am hoping to gather some insights and ideas from other teachers.

At our Curriculum Night last week, parents were very intrigued by the concept of digital writing portfolios, particularly when I explained how these pieces of writing in our sixth grade would follow them up to the regional middle/high schools, with the hope that other teachers in our system will have students add to them, creating a six-year portfolio of writing and reflections. I’m not saying that will happen, but I would love for that to happen.

As usual, since I had my students working on some goals for writing class, I worked on some of my own goals, too, as (teaching) writing goals, which I shared out with them on Friday as they began work. It also gave me a chance to show how Slides works (and to realize that only five out of nearly 80 sixth graders have ever created a Powerpoint or slideshow before …. interesting, right?) My goals here are slightly different than my SMART goals for our school administration (which both center around instituting digital portfolios as reflective writing spaces).

Peace (that’s our goal, right?),

When the Focus on Form Takes Away from Focus on Function

Fish form function

I’m going to skirt around the specifics of an issue here because, to be honest, I don’t want to get my bosses mad at me for writing publicly about an issue even as they continue to work behind the scenes to revise and update what I am referring to here. I also remain hopeful that this issue that has been bothering me the last few days will be resolved in a thoughtful way.

It has to do with the idea of form and function.

I know there is plenty of design theory out there around the ways in which the format of a thing shapes the content of the thing, or how the medium is the message and all that. I see it and I understand it, and I even often work as a writer in those very confines, even as I seek to push at the edges of the possible within forms.

But there are times when, well, the function has to influence the form of the thing. That is, if the structure of the container takes so much away from the content and message of what goes into the container, then you probably need a new container, not a new bag o’ content. Not if the content is important enough, anyway, or not if you are so passionate about what is being said that you can’t fit that fish in that fishbowl, you know what I mean?

Get a new fishbowl.

In this particular case, I have made some suggestions about some content being proposed in a sort of new container but I haven’t been able to articulate this perception (and I am not alone in this) that the design goal of the container itself is greatly impacting the content that will go into the container.

We seem to be wrestling cats into a box, and the cats refuse to fit. You don’t cut the tails off the cats to make them fit in the box. You get a bigger box. Or something other than the box you had in mind. Maybe a mobile home or something.

I haven’t entered this particular design fray discussion because it has taken me a few days to mull over what has been bugging me about it so much, and I realize, we were never really asked for input over design. The shape of the container seemed to have been decided already, in advance. So, we might have tail-less cats and dead goldfish on our hands (if you take my comedic, metaphorical thinking to a tragic conclusion here).

I realize, as you read this, you may be scratching your head as I dance around the specifics here on the page, wondering what the hell I am talking about. Fish? Cats? No. Neither. Sorry. Again, I am hopeful this issue all gets resolved through a process now underway, but I found I needed to get down on the page some of my thinking about form and function, and which trumps the other, and when.

Thank you for the reader therapy session … I’ll pay my fee on the way out the door. If I can fit through the door. Maybe you need a new door. It seems a bit too small ….

Peace (that fits in all boxes of all sizes everywhere),

On Connected Learning: Student Expertise

Connected Learning TV hangout

I had the great fortune to be asked to join Kim Jaxson (a professor at California State University in Chico, California and a colleague in the National Writing Project) as a guest on one of her series of Connected Learning TV programs the other night as she explores Connected Learning principles in context of “back to school.

Our topic on our night was all about recognizing and nurturing the concept of “students as experts” in our classrooms. Other guests included Laura Gibbs (whom I know from various online communities) and Jarret Krone (whom I didn’t know but now do). As representatives across the grade levels, we chatted about ways to empower students and surface expertise in our classrooms.

You can view the Google Hangout here as well as link to some resources. Or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.

I liked how the freeform conversation hit on a lot of great topics, and while we acknowledged that there are constraints in place from educational dictates (or at least, I feel them in my situation), there is always room for students to become experts.

One funny aside is when Jarret was talking about assigning some digital writing to his university students, and how some of them self-identify as “not Internet people” to the idea of using social media for a university class. This sparked a series of memes and tweets after the Google Hangout had ended.

Here’s one of mine:

Internet people

Peace (expertise, included),



At Middleweb: Forging Partnerships

in it together cover 150

My latest column over at Middleweb is an interview with my Western Massachusetts Writing Project (and musician) colleague, Michael Silverstone, and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian, about their new book, In It Together, that looks how to establish and build school partnerships with families and organizations in order to enrich the learning lives of all students.

Here are a few quotes that I think speak to what they are talking about:

… expending energy in the direction of collaboration leaves you with more energy than you started with. It’s kind of a paradox. I’ve come to know that isolation depletes my energy sooner or later. I’ve had supremely satisfying times in my own little classroom world, but after a while, going solo gets draining. — Michael Silverstone

Tapping into the experiences of our families greatly helps us in building these connections, and the possibilities for doing this are wonderfully endless. For example, some students might have a parent or sibling who is deployed, and others might have a family member who fled their home country. Both groups have depth of knowledge on this topic of study and can greatly help our instruction to come alive. — Debbie Zacarian

I think the Q&A format brought out some interesting insights from Michael and Debbie that is worth a read as the school year begins and we look to the community of our classroom and beyond for support and inspiration.

Check out the piece at Middleweb.

Peace (making connections),

Book Review: Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

Information cover final web

I realize the irony here, that I paid top dollar for Cory Doctorow’s book — Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age — when I probably could, with just a bit of searching and tinkering, find a free and pirated version of the book somewhere and be reading Doctorow’s engaging missive about copyright law and information flow in mere minutes of a search.

I could of done that, but I didn’t.

Here’s why:

  • First off, I want to support McSweeney’s, Dave Egger’s publishing arm that also supports youth writing programs around the country with its 826 Valencia network.
  • Second, I want to support Doctorow as a writer, although I suspect he is doing just fine without my meager money … this is a principle thing about supporting artists at work.
  • Third, I like the tangible feel of a book in my hands (and this one traveled with me from my sons’ baseball games, as its short chapters were perfectly tuned into the breaks between innings.)

And it turns out that my move to avoid the free, pirated copy of the book is right in line with Doctorow’s ideas around the Information Age, and how artists can still find and reach an audience that is willing to pay for art, even if it is freely available elsewhere. This is part of his point: in the age of the Copy, how do musicians and writers and artists still make art that is meaningful and make a living at it, too?

Amanda Palmer’s foreword (coupled with her husband, Neil Gaiman’s companion forward) continues to resonate with me in context to Doctorow’s ideas around copyright and publishing, and how innovation is always bound to upend the status quo, and the status quo is always going to fight that change with lawyers and money and political influence.

Palmer writes about her time as a street performer in Boston (she was one of those lovely painted statue people that we gawk at) and her observations of passersby, and how while many would ignore her, the few that observed and appreciated her art, and put some money into her collection bin, was more than enough to sustain her with a regular income.

“Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making to humankind …. People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.” (Palmer, page xiii)

Doctorow not only shows how the current system of stifling customers from access on their own terms to the art they love is stifling art creation itself, he also shows how a revamping of copyright law might be one of the fixes. He also freely and open admits that not every artist will find a niche and that there is no real “fix it” for all of the disruption. But a closed system of art, he argues, is bound to fail on many levels and leave media industries crumbling.

Instead, he argues for the idea of “blanket licenses” (such as are used in bars and music establishments for the use of playing copyrighted music by cover bands and the jukebox and karaoke machines) that would compensate artists and publishers for media on the Internet while broadening reach to different audiences. He notes that while the publishing industry has traditionally taken advantage of the complex analytics to pad their own pockets, this age of information is also the age of data analysis, and that there should be a way to determine fair use of media, set up a payment system with ISP providers and provide compensation for the creators of art.

Will this work? I have no idea. It sounds good on paper, if I understand it right. Reality might be different. Remember hwo has the money and power right now. It’s not you and I, alas. But Doctorow has a phrase of words that has stuck with me since finishing the book.

“Think like a Dandelion.” (Doctorow, page 142)

What he means that since there is no turning back the clock on copying — and in fact, copying movies and music and more will only get easier as time moves on — an artist needs to find a new way to think about distribution. Instead, he suggests, think of art as the dandelion, which produces thousands of seeds that it lets loose into the world, in hopes one or two or a few will find a nurturing bit of soil on which to plant itself.

“There are lots of people out there who might want to buy your work or compensate you in some other way — the more places your work finds itself, the greater the likelihood that it will find one of those would-be customers in some unsuspected crack in the metaphorical pavement.” (Doctorow, page 143).

Of course, the publishing companies would see the dandelion in another way: as a weed that needs to be eradicated or controlled, right? Such is the world right now. Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free (title reference is to the idea that information doesn’t want to be free — it’s data — but people want to be free to make their own choices about technology and art) is another way forward.

Peace (taking root),

Typing with My Voice: A Poem Constructed on the Fly

(This is for Slice of Life, a writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers)

Using Speech to Text tool

I wanted to try out the new feature in Google Docs that allows you to speak so that the computer will type for you. (See the Google site for more information). I have to say, speech recognition has sure come a long way, and now I am wondering how I can bring this into my classroom for struggling writers once we get into our Google Apps for Education accounts this year.

The Voice tool wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for me to write this poem on the fly and then do some quick editing on it. I wrote a poem, inspired by flowers on the table. I realized later that you can add in some simple commands for line breaks and punctuation. I’ll remember that for next time.

Peace (you hear me?),


Of Bugs and Boats and Other Things

I guess I was busy over this weekend, making stuff.

Night Iights

First, as part of a new cMOOC (an offshoot of sorts from the Making Learning Connected MOOC) about science and writing (and bugs), I crafted a poem layered on top of a filtered image with clip art. The task was to take a night picture of a light, with bugs.

The sound of writing

Second, Terry Elliott took one of my poems and a few others from other folks left as comments at his blog site and he made podcasts of them, noting how voice (and another’s voice, to boot) adds a new element to writing. I tried to capture this in a comic, but my first version failed until Stephanie Loomis came along and handed me a word cloud of the poem via Twitter, and suggested layering that into the comic. I did, and the comic suddenly worked.

Four on a Boat

Third, Terry was gathering together responses to a post he wrote the other day (my poem that he recorded was one of them), and he called his reflection post “Four Friends on a Boat” or something (it references Wind in the Willows), and that got me thinking of the boat and the friends.

Peace (in frames),

Documenting Our Dreams and Aspirations

Dream Scene Collection 2015

What we were making for the first few weeks of school. This Dream Scene project is a stalwart for me, as it fuses student engagement with technology, writing about aspirations and sparks lots of discussions about where they see themselves in the future.

The arrows should move you along through this Flickr album.

Dream Scenes 2015

Peace (keep the dream alive),

Reflected and Refracted: 90 Years of New Yorker Cartoons

Nothing brings “context” more into focus than sitting down and reading (or maybe standing up and reading .. that works, too … don’t drive and read, though .. that’s just dangerous) a set of cartoons from the 1920s. While some of the cartoons might have resonance over time, finding that universal funny bone gag that stands above the time in which it is written, most will have you scratching your head, wondering about what was going on in the world that made this particular sketch and caption funny.

Or am I putting my confusion on you?

That was what came to my mind, anyway, as I was reading The New Yorker’s 90th Anniversary Book of Cartoons last night (with some funny subtitles, such as “Sequentially Paginated for Easy Access” and “A Special Section of Radio-Friendly Cartoons” as the editors play up and make fun of the book format in a digital age). I was on a bench, at a sports field, as my son played ball, laughing and giggling, with some adults nearby, glancing over at me. A few kids wandered by, curious.

I kept giggling.

The book is really a magazine and not a book, anyway, and it covers a lot of ground — moving through each decade of cartooning from the 1920s to the present in the esteemed magazine, with a funny introduction by New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff.

Mankoff writes, of the collection, that it “nicely represents the evolving comic imagination of our cartoonists during those decades, as it reflected and refracted the desires, conventions, and modes of thought of the times.” (Mankoff, page 3)

I like that phrase of “reflected and refracted” as a reason why cartoons work as commentary, and also, his phrasing explains why some cartoons don’t necessarily resonate outside of their times. Sometimes, it takes a collection like this to remind us of how things have changed, even if it often feels as if the world remains static. Of course, there are always those cartoons, too, that just don’t work for a certain reader, no matter what. I blame the cartoonist.



Even so, I enjoyed the art and the writing, and the wit of play, in this New Yorker collection of cartoons, and decided (as a research reader of one) that Charles Adams’ cartoons hold up the best over time, hands down.

Maybe that’s just me.

Peace (in the ‘toon),

When Analog Trumps Digital (And a book is more than a book)

For all my writing and teaching and wondering about the ways in which the digital world is changing the way we write and compose, there are still many moments when the digital can’t hold a candle to the non-digital.

This week, I got a reminder of that. In the mail. Snailmail.

Brian Selznick’s new book, The Wonders, arrived in a box and wonder is right. I haven’t even read the book yet (it’s next on my pile, though) but already, I am entranced by it in ways that no Kindle or ebook format could ever do. It’s the tangible qualities of The Wonders that has me eager to dive in. My eyes pick up its presence every time I walk by the counter where I have it sitting.

It’s begging to be read.

Like his two other books that I loved — The Invention of Hugo Cabret and WonderstruckThe Marvels is clearly a work of art as much as a work of storytelling, with Selznick’s distinct drawing style moving one story along while the text moves a second story along, and I suspect they will converge together. But it is the physical book itself that has me fascinated right now.

From the cover itself, with its golden fonts, to the page bindings that are dipped into some golden gloss that reflects movement in the room, to the feel of the book (it’s heavy, as if indicating some story worth its weight in gold), and the way you can flip through the book and feel as if if you are submerging into the story. You physically hold The Marvels and there is no doubt that you are holding a book! You might need a literary sherpa to help carry it, but dang it, it’s a book you’ve got, not an app or a file.

A book.

And there is something wonderfully powerful about this realization that a physical book itself, one you hold in your hands — paper and words and ink — can still stir that kind of excitement in a reader.

Yes, the ability to embed media, and add links to other content, and bookmark with notes, and all of the other whizbang options of digital books is fascinating and interesting. But …. I still yearn for this kind of experience, too, and it feels like a dying ember of publishing — exciting readers with the design of a book. This publisher figured it out, and I (at least) am willing to pay a bit more to own a book that is art in and of itself. Now, I can’t wait to dive into the story and immerse myself into the entire experience.

(And part of me wonders, will Selznick and his publishers turn this story into a digital book? I don’t believe he did that with his other two (unless you count the movie version of Hugo, and the audio version where he worked to use soundscapes to tell the silent story of the images in his book), and yet, how much pressure there must be to do that, right? I’m not even saying that would be a bad thing, if done right. See The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore for how this can be done with style.)

Peace (in the book),