Book Review: The Penderwicks

You would think we would have read this book by now. The author is local, my wife knows the husband of the writer, and the book got pretty good publicity and reviews (and some awards) when it came out. But … a tale of four sisters in a summer cottage … not a big draw for my son. But his book club chose The Penderwicks and so, into the story we went … and ver glad for it, we are.

In fact, the book is a nice reprieve from so many of the action-orientated novels that we have been reading together lately. A tale that reminds one of the English manners books (whose genre my wife adores), The Penderwicks is centered on characters as much as plot, with the sisters coming to life on the page as they help a neighboring boy deal with his overbearing mother’s plans to send him to military school.

I won’t give the story away, but you will come to know the sisters well. The gentle adventures that take up these pages are lovingly told, with strong writing. You’ll care about the Penderwick sisters — Rosalind, the oldest with the burden of being the oldest on her shoulders; Skye, the quick-to-anger and quick-to-defend-the-family sister; Jane, the young writer with an imagination as large as the sky; and young Batty, whose friendship with the family dog, Hound, had my son and I giggling at times because her dog reminded us of our dog (Duke, also a hound).

I’m glad we found The Penderwicks and may seek the sisters out again in the sequels.

Peace (in the story),

Unwriting the Unreadable Untext

unread and then unwrite

Phew. Just writing the title of this blog post is a bear of an idea to get my head around, and I don’t know how to even write what I want to write here. So, let me try to frame it, if I can. I am somewhat “collaborating” with a handful of others — facilitated by Maha B. and Keith H. — on an ancillary document about an unwritten autoethnography of the Rhizomatic Learning uncourse/discourse we were all part of months ago. (ie, Rhizo14).

The collaborative document — entitled for now as Writing the Unreadable Untext — is an attempt by Maha and Keith to explain why the autoethnography hasn’t gotten done and in creating a document about an unfinished document, they invited others into the mix, and man, we have made a mess of it. Half-finished sentences. Notes and poems and ideas in the margins. Embedded gifs. Comics. Poems. It’s a like roadmap to nowhere and yet … and yet … it’s also a roadmap to somewhere.

Here, I am trying to unwrite it … deconstruct what I see in there.

You see, in this collaborative piece, I get the sense that we are exploring the idea of voice, of emergent writing in a shared space, of giving up control and ceding authority to the group, of pushing the text beyond the text and into the margins, of playing against the stereotypes of what writing is and might emerge as, of how the visual plays of the written word, of how our collective thinking may or may not be able to be neatly tucked into one single document that represents us all. We seem to be pushing back at the very nature of what we expect writing to be.

All, by the way, in harmony with Rhizomatic Learning, so even amidst the crazy chaos of that document, we are modeling how the swirling, decentralized ideas of many can gravitate around some anchor ideas that may indeed make sense. We’re writing beyond the writing, and from the outside, it looks like dissonance. From the inside, it looks like a new creature of ideas coming to life, even though we can’t say for certain how it will be shaped when it is fully evolved (Pokemon!).

Maha asks if we can move it another step forward, into something more readable and publishable. I’m fine with that, I suppose, although I don’t feel the need, either. If we think of writing as nourishment for the self (I write to learn), then this document, in all of its starts and ends and middle roads to the margins, has done its job for me.

By the way, I realized this morning that I never saw the original document — the original autoethnology draft — that inspired this reflective piece on why that piece wasn’t getting written. I thought this was the piece. I had my anchor set on a different pier, and still, we set sail. Of course, then I found the original, and realized I had contributed to it, months ago, and it was like finding some echoes of words from my mind and being reminded of myself on the screen. I was there. I didn’t remember being there. Odd? You bet.

Peace (in the rhyzome),


Password Protection Inc.

passwords for mr h

As part of our Digital Life unit, we talk a lot about passwords. One of their activities is to imagine they have been hired by us teachers, who are too lazy to create strong passwords, and they have to to come up with a memorable, yet secure, password for each of us. They have to use what they know about us as teachers, or as people outside of school.

They then test out their passwords with this great site: How Secure is My Password? The site really gets them thinking about the role of numbers and characters in password creation. The prompt engages them in a fun way that then leads us to reflect back on their own use of passwords in their digital lives.

I had my students write their recommendation for me down on a sticky note and put it on a whiteboard. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • harrisburdickwriter
  • HedgeHog41
  • E&Lart2
  • Doyourlunchcount
  • Sax-o-phone
  • RRGiants50
  • Books$1234book$

Peace (in the word),

The MultiMedia Mouse Story, revisited

I took my story and pushed it into Prezi and had better results. I was even able to add some more audio to elements of the story (using pitch variation in Audacity to change my voice, somewhat). And unlike my use of Storehouse, the videos are embedded and play nicely. See what you think:

Peace (in the process),

Scenes from a PD (Nurturing a Culture of Writers)

Six Word Memoirs

I have the good fortune to be part of a team through our Western Massachusetts Writing Project who is working with an urban middle school around the theme of “Nurturing a Culture of Writers” this year. I won’t say everything is completely smooth and easy. The teachers we are working with are overwhelmed with initiatives this year, and we are having them do a lot of reading and planning around writing with their students.

Six Word Shoutouts

The other day, as part of our opening “writing into the day” activity, we had them write Six Word Memoirs and then, Six Word Shout-outs — noticing someone else and giving them praise. You’d be surprised at how powerful six words can be and how this simple activity, with both its inward and outward look, really changed the tone of the session, and set the stage for some incredible discussions and activities around writing in the content areas.

I worked with math teachers for part of the day, and talking about using writing in the math class is always tricky. We used the “newspaper front page” activity as an example of public writing (which was our theme). We had fun creating articles and then discussing connections to content understanding.

Newspaper Front Page

We were very pleased with how our professional development day went with these teachers, who are all so dedicated to helping their students make progress with writing and higher order thinking. I worry that they are being spread so thin by an ever-increasing series of mandates from their district, and from our state.  You can see it in their faces, and in their body language. I admire their resiliency, and appreciate that they bought into our writing PD over the four hours we were with them.

Peace (in making PD count),

The Mouse Problem (A Mixed Media Story)


I’ve been working, and struggling, to pull together this mixed media story for Digital Writing Month. The story is called The Mouse Problem. One struggle has been how to represent different parts of the story with different kinds of media. I did figure that out, using audio, flowcharts, video and other elements to tell parts of the story, which is already a combination of writing genres (texts, letters, newspaper articles, etc.)

The largest struggle has been: how do I post it/where do I post it so that others can experience the story as I have written it? This is no small matter, and I tried a few different spaces. You should know that the original is a Powerpoint, so if you were here with me, I would pull the story up and put the presentation/story into “play” and it would be fine.

But adding audio and adding video to PowerPoint in an online space? And having all of the attached files ready to for play by a distant audience? Not so easy, and the source of much frustration for me. I’ve tried a few different sites (Slideshare, for example) and found them lacking. I feel a bit as if I am losing agency with my story and my work with every hosting space I try.

I ended up using Storehouse (by dropping files into Dropbox for access by the storytelling app). But I had to edit the video to make it fit, only to realize that unless you turn the audio on in a later video in the story, the audio in the upper video (where the reporter gets a call) won’t work. Ack. This DID not happen when I was working in the app to design the story. It’s only in the web version. (And I loved that audio!)

I’m just going to live with it for now, as I figure out other possibilities. Anyone? I want to host a Powerpoint with video/audio files that play sequentially in the story. (Now thinking … what about Prezi? Hmmm).

What this points to, for me, is that digital writing continues to offer a push/pull concept — opening up possibilities for new kinds of writing but also limiting our expression and agency based on the tool itself. Whenever I run into this, I am reminded of the beauty of workarounds, if they work, and how one’s lack of knowledge about technology and composition would force you to make constant compromises for your work. I hate making compromises for a vision I have for a piece, and I hate that I often have to live with something less than my vision.

Sometimes, that’s the case.

Peace (in the digital),

Dog Counter Culture: Tinkering with Mozilla AppMaker


I’ve been meaning to try out the recent addition to the Mozilla Webmaker tools, something called AppMaker, and Melissa Techman’s recent presentation at the K12Online Conference spurred me on. The AppMaker is designed to teach both simple and complex skills around designing an app, which can be viewed online and on mobile devices that run the new Firefox IOS.

As with most Webmaker tools, there are remixable projects to start from, which I found handy. I used a Cat Counter, removed the cats, added my own dogs (current and deceased) and made the Dog Counter Culture app. I am thankful for this handy guide at Mozilla Webmaker, which had detailed instructions on how to remix the Cat Counter app. I just followed the directions, tinkered with the settings and it didn’t take me long to have an app.

DogCounterCulture App

Here is the web version of the Dog Counter Culture app. (Yep, that’s me … barking like a dog). Here is the install link if you have the Firefox IOS. I don’t. But maybe I should try it out?

I wonder, now, how I might pull this AppMaker into our Hour of Code activities in early December. What kind of apps could my students make and why would they make them? Need to get some brainstorming under way. If you have an idea, please drop me a comment. I’ll be asking my students, too.

Peace (in the app),