Slice of Life: And there it is …


(This is a post for Slice of Life, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments of our day. You are invited to write, too.)

We were at the end of our staff meeting yesterday, discussing moves to make our school’s behavior management more systematic across the board. The administrators passed out an incident sheet, showing where things happened and how many incidents there were in our school last year. Talk turned to the difficulty of monitoring bus rides.

And then the principal informed us of a recent post-election incident in which a group of students (I teach elementary, so kindergarten through sixth graders) began chanting and shouting “Clinton Sucks” on the bus.

And there it is.

I know the principal and vice-principal dealt with the incident, but as I wrote last week, this election has brought to light, in ways nothing else has before, the political make-up of the small suburban community in which I teach. Nearly half of the voters here went with the new president, and some of the lawn signs during the election season were brazen enough to make me wonder who would put such language on their lawn.

I have this vision in my mind, of all of these very young children smiling, laughing and joining in with the chanting, no doubt caught up in the excitement of the crowd and the moment, and of the thrill of doing something a bit rowdy and unplanned. I can see the bus driver, trying to get the bus quiet. I can see the students who join in but don’t want to join in, for fear of peer pressure. I can feel the disconnect that comes when the energy of the crowd sweeps you up into its arms, even if you don’t want to be there.

The core students who were chanting on the bus no doubt reflect what is being talked about at home, as we all know young children will echo what they hear their parents say and think (at least, for now). I’m afraid to ask if the leaders were my students. I need to ask but I don’t want to know. You know? So much for being a Peacebuilder school in which we daily pledge to be open and kind to others, or having staff using Responsive Classroom techniques as a way to build community that respects all views.

Or maybe, there is only so much we can do in the school to promote tolerance and reasoned argument. I know I need to keep my own students and my own classroom in my sights. But I wonder, how much of our classroom exploration and talk of social justice in the world, as well as topics of racial equity and tolerance and historical imbalance of power, hit a wall when my students go home?

This election continues to drain me.

Peace (everywhere, for everyone),

PS — I would feel exactly the same way if the chanting was reversed, and Trump was the target.


Fake News about Fake News

Fake News about Fake News

(created via Mozilla’s XRay Goggles Remix tool)

I’m not on Facebook, so I don’t know the extent of the “fake news” filtering into feeds there during the US presidential election. But I have seen more than a few articles in which Mark Zuckerberg is defending the algorithms that might have allowed some made-up news to come into the system, and worries that such items might have influenced voting.

I could not resist taking one of Zuckerberg’s denials and popping it into Mozilla’s XRay Goggles for a bit of a remix myself. Yep. Fake news about fake news. In mine, he owns up to Facebook’s role and admits that Facebook itself is behind the fake news (it’s not true, as far as I can tell … just to be upfront).

Still, even if some of what he defending is true — that the automated system still allows items with no veracity and tilted political bents into millions of people’s feeds — the issue of fake news in feeds has larger ramifications about how a social networking site can play a role in elections, and … perhaps even more importantly … it raises the question: why aren’t more people getting news from multiple and reputable sources?

Good lord.

Who relies on Facebook for all of their news? I know. I know. Many people do. It reminds me of the need for us, as teachers, to double down on teaching media literacy, and rhetorical moves, and determining the surface truth and the deeper slants of everything we read, whether it is the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Facebook or your local newspaper (do you still get your local newspaper? Is there still a local newspaper to get? My old journalism hackles get raised here. I hope you still have a local newspaper).

Check out this report from Pew Research, which indicates that almost two-thirds of Americans get our news from social media. What? And that report is from the summer. Who wants to bet that the number went up during the election?

About 6-in-10 Americans get news from social media

Peace (but check the source),

Musical Interlude: Hopeful Me/Angry Me

Hope Remains song lyrics

(Note: This post is a convergence of a couple of ideas, including DigiLitSunday, where the theme this week is “purpose.” I am sharing out and reflecting on that theme as I contemplate making music as a protest moment.)

I often respond to the world by turning to songwriting. Admittedly, my first attempts at writing songs always seem to slant negative, and then I often have to wrestle the words back towards something more positive and productive (well, sometimes a song just needs a downcast view of the world to be truthful and honest).

As I continue to go through my stages of What the @#&% over this election, I have been turning to music to vent. My purpose here, in both the writing and then the decisions I make with the production of my music, is to find a creative path into grieving and, then moving into action. It’s meaningful for me to write — it’s how I process — and my guitar has always been a companion during difficult times. I find comfort there.

This weekend, two songs emerged. One song is hopeful, if a bit mournful; and the other, a remix project, is angry and resentful.  My friend, Terry Elliott, wrote a post with poems and a hackable text that he called “Flip the Coin.” Each of these songs belongs on the same coin. How you feel in a given moment is how you might flip the coin.

The more optimistic song – called Hope Remains — is my attempt to remind myself, and maybe you, that we have each other in dark times, and that even in the darkness of the world, there is light. It can be hard to see. We sometimes need to search long and hard for it. We often stumble. But it is there. I wrote this one for me. I wrote it for my friends. I wrote it for you. Hope remains.

This song came together rather quickly. I knew I did not want to reference the election directly. That’s not what it was about. I started negative, and turned positive. In less than an hour, the lyrics and chord changes were done, and I had recorded the demo on my iPad. My original purpose in recording was to keep the song raw. No production – no reverb or compression or anything. The next day, though, I knew it needed something more, something lingering off the edges of the guitar and my singing. I then layered in the bass/cello on the bottom end and did a slight mix of the guitar/flute on the higher end.

The second song — called Welcome to the Boardroom — was my attempt to use Trump’s words against him, crafting a dangerous-sounding remix with his own voice as the underlying track. My purpose? Channel anger into song and use his own words against him. I put his voice through all sorts of effects, and gave the tune a driving beat, with an underlying distortion field of instruments. Listen in headphones to get the full effect. I also added in strange sounds, to aurally show how off-center and off-kilter I feel right about now. I felt a lot better afterwards. The cathartic effect, I guess.

Peace (we have each other),


Strange Juxtapositions and Strong Realizations

Vets day

We had our annual Veterans Day celebration at our school yesterday, just days after the election of Trump. I am not involved in the planning of this event, which mostly is done by the fifth grade as part of their unit on the United States Constitution. The entire fifth grade does this powerful choral recitation of the Constitution with veterans as their audience during a special breakfast. Their voices remind of the “we” of the Constitution.

After the breakfast, all of the veterans come into the gym, where the entire school is waiting. We sing songs and listen as each veteran stands up, introduces themselves, connects to a grandchild or child or niece/nephew in the audience, and then receives a loud applause from the school. The two central songs were written by our music teacher. It’s beautiful to hear all those hundreds of voices singing to the veterans, to honor the commitment to our country’s ideals. (And I am one of those who gets to listen — I served in the Army National Guard in my life before teaching and join the veterans in the chairs.)

As emotional as the event was, and always is (and this year, there were nearly 65 veterans who came to our school to be honored), I could not shake the strange sense of disconnect in myself from what I was witnessing here as celebration and what I witnessed in the presidential election. I should note that the small town where I teach is fairly conservative. I know this already from my many interactions with the community, and the way the town consistently underfunds our school (we are at the bottom of the state’s list for local funding and support for schools).

Soho Voting

But I was still rather shocked to see that this town where I have put my heart and soul into for 15 years, my entire teaching career, voted for Clinton, yet only by a margin of about 50 votes. That means that half of the voters who turned out support a president-elect, one whom I can’t even come to grips with the fact that he made it into office (he probably is shocked, too), and against whom I will work to remove and block as much as I am able. This is not a town of struggling families, not the demographic that seems to have been the wave of support for Trump. This is a solid middle class white suburban town (with some pockets of poverty), with many families connected to the local air bases.

I looked around at the veterans in the room — some from the Korean War, some from Vietnam War, some from the Gulf Wars, and some still in active duty. I thought about the day’s theme of these men and women fighting and serving to protect our rights and freedoms. I wondered about the message we were sending to all those young people — that our Constitution allows a bigot to become president because freedom of choosing leaders is a wide net —  and whether an election like this is a symbol of contradiction.

I wondered if it was just me, thinking that.

Knowing how the town voted, I suspected that while I was not alone in those thoughts, there were plenty in the room of adults who would disagree with me, and call the election something more positive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t also wonder to myself: do I really belong here as a teacher in this kind of town?

But, of course, I do. Maybe like never before. I am never overtly political in my teaching. I duck and weave when my students ask about my politics (outside of the classroom, I ‘d call myself a slightly left-of-center pragmatist but I do live in a very progressive, far-left city). I am purposeful, but thoughtful in my classroom. I am sure I have bias — in what materials I select, in how I teach my lessons, in the writing I ask my students to do. All teaching is political, to some degree.

This election reminds me of the importance of open minds and open hearts, and the role that educators can play in helping our students discover the values of our country. It’s OK that we can disagree. It’s not OK to let fear and intimidation stand, in or out of school. Active engagement in the world will become a renewed focus for me and my classroom. I’ve always known and celebrated the potential of teachers to shape lives, in a positive way.

Sitting in the midst of the dozens of military veterans, in gym full of hundreds of attentive children, it became even clearer to me what one of my paths forward to confront the results and message and tone of this election must be. Now, more than ever, teachers matter. I’m not going anywhere.

Our Veterans Day ceremony ended with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. I’d like to believe that Woody would not stand around, either. He’d pick up his guitar and do something.

Peace (in our land),



Fight The Despair/Hold On To Hope

Don't Despare: David Remnick

There’s still too much swirling around my head, and my world, about the election to make sense of what I am thinking. I know that I am worried about this man being charge of the most powerful country of the world. I am angry when I read about people saying “wait for the real Trump to now appear.” As if.  I am confused with the knowledge that what I thought was my country … may not be “my country” after all. Or it may not be the country that holds the same ideals that I believe in.

I’m turning to writing because I have always believed that we write to understand the world. I am hoping my words will give me anchor again.

And I won’t despair.

Peace Posters 2016

I understand why people voted the way they did. I’ve been around to enough parts and regions of our country (visiting as presenters or participants of events, traveling for other reasons, and spending six years as an infantry soldier in the National Guard certainly opened my eyes to the different viewpoints that exist in our country) to know that my corner of the Northeast is not how everyone views the world. I have plenty of friends who are right of center on the political map, living on the edge of the middle class and angry at the “system.”

They hated Clinton with a passion and venom that always surprised me (but, of course, shouldn’t, now that we see demographics of the election). They hate Washington DC with even more passion for leaving them behind and for being ineffectual (although, it is the Tea Party that has ground progress to a halt). Government, to my friends, is the problem, not the solution.  (You can imagine the very heated discussion my friends and I have all year long). Of course, some of those same friends benefit from government support programs, like the VA and health care. I won’t get into the sad irony of voters who may have just sealed their own economic decline in order to “send a message” by electing a racist, misogynistic, and more than slightly addled leader to the White House. When even commentator Glen Beck calls Trump “unhinged,” you have to take notice.

I also know there is resentment against the so-called elite and educated. And, I know plenty of families continue to struggle economically, even in the face of positive news across all sectors (Bill Clinton (D) left the country in solid economic shape; Bush (R) burned the economy to the ground on his way out the door with his trickle down illusions; Obama (D) built it back up … see a political pattern here?). I believe that economic concern for the present and the future was/is at the core of this election, more than race and gender.

Peace Posters 2016

I won’t despair. But I won’t turn my back, either.

How this man governs will set the stage for the world my own children will grow up in, live in, becomes citizens of. I don’t think he sees anything beyond his own personal gain (and won’t be surprised if the absolute power corrupts him even further). My only faith is that the rest of the government will be the ballast (although I fear the Republicans holding Congress will see the election as a means for the Tea Party to ascend even further.) I am hoping my own senator, Elizabeth Warren, remains the powerful voice she needs to be, and that Chuck Schumer is the right leader of a minority party at the right time in history. I don’t even know what to say about the Supreme Court, which is the one thing that I have the most worry about. Again, this is my children’s world we are talking about. 

Peace Posters 2016

No. No despair. Not quite hope, either. Not today, anyway. Maybe tomorrow. My friend, Ron, sent a message to my other friend, Simon, and me, about some of our tweets back and forth. Ron reminded us about love.

I believe in that notion of love and understanding, too. It’s why I teach. It’s why I write. It’s why I connect. It’s why I love my own children so dearly. This election has rattled me but not shaken me to the point where I lose faith in what I believe in — which is the potential goodness of people coming together to make the world a better place. One man elected leader can’t rob me of that. One election can’t change me. I am stronger than that.

You are, too.

Peace Posters 2016

Note: These Peace Posters were made in art class by my sixth grade students. I found comfort in wandering the hallways yesterday, taking in their notions of peace. It gave me a sense of hope that was in short supply.

Peace (I mean it),


Slice of Life: Virtual and Collaborative Peer Review

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are invited to notice the small moments. You write, too.)

Peer editing

There’s always an edge of chaos when I introduce something new and technology-related to our writing process. We’ve been working for about two weeks on a small research/writing project in which my sixth graders are composing Letters to the Next President based on a topic of choice. I wrote about it yesterday.

Last Friday, I put students across my four classes into Virtual Writing Groups. They “invited” other students from their groups into their documents in comment mode. Then yesterday, after a mini-lesson on Warm and Cool Feedback and how to comment in Google Docs, they spent about 30 minutes reading other students’ letters, using the comment tool to offer support and suggestions for improvements.

Letter to Prez Collab Peer Editing

For most, this is the first time they have used the commenting feature as collaboration and the first time they found themselves in a single document with other students, sometimes in the same document at the same time (since all groups had at least one or two other students from the same class as well as students from others).


If you’ve ever been with young writers then they suddenly discover the power and potential of commenting into Google Docs, as well as its potential collaborative features, you know what the room suddenly becomes. A scream out loud, a laugh across the room, a shout to someone else, a burst of confusion. We had it all, in each of the sixth grade classes yesterday.

Peer editing

My role, as teacher, was to allow those moments to happen, put what they were finding out into context (“Now, imagine if we extended your Writing Group to students beyond our own sixth grade in our own school ….”) and then guide them forward to keep actively reading and offering suggestions for improvement.

I asked that they NOT yet read the comments on their own letters, as we will be doing that today in a lesson around accepting/rejecting feedback from others while acknowledging the authority of the “outside reader.” I wasn’t strict on that point, but most were fully engaged in reading what others had written and offering comments.

Next up? Final editing/revision of the Letters in today’s classes, printing them off and mailing them to the White House in the coming weeks. It’s a nice bit of symmetry that our letter project comes to an end on the day of the election.

Peace (it’s collaborative),


The Final Stretch of Writing Letters with Argument and Research

Letters to President Collage

Check out Letters to the Next President — there are more than 6,500 letters of all media types from students 13 and older and more seem to arrive every day. Since my students are under 13, I have been working on a similar project but not for that site (which does not allow letters for writers under the age of 13). Letters to the Next President is part of a National Writing Project/Educator Innovator project.

Letters to President Research Journals Collage

I’ve been able to guide my students into the research component of Google Docs, using tables to track information and sources. This rather small-scale research component sets the stage for longer research pieces later in the year. We’ve color-coded a few letters from high school students as a way to notice facts and opinion as a way to visualize how they can use facts from research to bolster their opinion on the topic they have chosen to write about. And they have been writing their own letters on a topic of choice, laying out an argument for action by the next president.

Last week, I put them into “virtual writing groups” with students in all four of my classes — they “invited” other students in other classes to comment on their Google Doc letters —  and today, they will be peer reading and reviewing other letters, with the Warm/Cool Feedback approach. Tomorrow, just in time for election day, they will read peer comments, revise their letters and then be just about done with the project. Well, except for the printing and mailing to the White House, which we will be doing.

I admit that I missed a few opportunities: I had an offer from a CLMOOC friend who teaches upper middle school to have his students peer review my students. I dropped the ball (maybe it’s not too late). I keep contemplating using Youth Voices as a publishing platform. I still might offer that option up, but it requires parent sign-off, and so I need to get my act together.

So, we are the finish line and yet, maybe not quite yet.

Peace (in words and wonder),

#DigiWriMo: How I Failed Visual Notetaking 101

Notes from WMWP

Yesterday, I spent nearly the entire day at a Leadership Retreat for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. It was productive, as always, and yet, I did find my mind wandering from time to time. I decided to try my hand at Visual Notetaking to keep focused.

I tried at Visual Notetaking, but I failed. I began with notes on paper during the meeting and then later, after the retreat, I used the Paper app to draw the visual with my stylus.

Notes from WMWP

Well,  first of all, too many words. Too much text. But that’s who I am: a word man. And I wasn’t patient enough, either, for thinking through the visual design element. I sort of jumped in, started and then worked around my starting point. I’m not sure either of these really captures much beyond a pretty note.

Check out Sylvia Duckworth and her art. It really is inspiring how she listens, processes, and then captures the movement of ideas in her artwork. All of it seems logical and designed with an eye towards cohesiveness of the reader/viewer.

flickr photo shared by sylviaduckworth under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’m not giving up on the idea of Visual Notetaking, but I understand that free-hand drawing is not my strength and never has been. It doesn’t help that I have a fat stylus for the Ipad, making detailed drawings more difficult than it probably should be. I am more apt to be creative when I have the art done for me, which has its drawbacks and limitations, and I can work on the writing and design piece. I need a partner!

Still, this opportunity allowed me to dive in and try the process, and I did find some good resources to put into my Diigo bookmarking for later perusal. I like the simplicity of this overview, for example.

Have you tried Visual Notetaking? Have you done better than me?

Peace (in the draw),