Anna Quindlen: The Lamp of Self

In the recent edition of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen sounds off about where the world of books and reading may be heading, particularly in light of the oncoming bus known as the iPad (which writer Daniel Lyons writes about in an interesting way in the same magazine, pointing out the benefits and dangers of Steve Jobs/Apple’s closed systems).

Quindlen notes that there “is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction.” Books in book form are still everywhere, and most of us are still in the transition from paper and digital form, and that transition may be around for quite some time.

I am a digital guy, for sure, but I have not yet made my way to the Kindle, Nook or iPad or any other (although I have read books on my iTouch and on my XO computer, just to see what it was like).  I am still attached to the  physical substance of the book, even though, I understand the interesting aspects of eReaders and am fascinated by the possibilities of multi-layered composition.

I liked this point made by Quindlen, too:

“Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self: that’s why it survives.”

I imagine that this holds true, whatever the “container” the book comes in.

Peace (in the digital world),

Slice of Life: Refuge from the Rain

Slice of Life(This is the last part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

The rain has been unbearable the last two days or so. Just deluges of downpour and along with keeping an eye on the rivers — the one down the street is near the edge of the bank — and the flow of water into my basement sump pump — it’s churning out a near constant stream, worrying me about the motor — we are just plain bored out of our skulls. And the kids have been at each other’s throats, too, as we wait for what they say will be record-high temperatures and sunny days ahead.

So, last night, we went to Blockbuster and rented The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which one of the few Roald Dahl stories that I don’t think I have read, although all three of my boys know the story of the wily fox who is torn between being the “wild animal” that he is and the family member he has become.

I love stopmotion movies and I sort of like Wes Anderson as a director, and while I was not blown away by Mr. Fox, it was rather quirky and likeable, and it definitely had that Wes Anderson feel to it. His movies always seem off-balance to me, in a good way.

It was nice just to have the four boys hanging out in the living room, with us cracking jokes and watching the flick. (My wife is away this week). I realized later that we never got the popcorn going. What I thinking?

Peace (in the last slice of the month),

Bullying and the aftermath

It’s been hard to make sense of what happened in our neighboring South Hadley where it appears now (after our district attorney levied criminal charges) that a group of popular high school kids targeted a girl from Ireland to the point where she took her own life a few months ago.

It’s sad all around, really. Sad that the girl had no concept of where to turn to for help. Sad that any kids could act that way towards another (verbal, emotional, physical abuse). Sad that this went on too long in a school where teachers should have seen the signs (I’ll withhold judgment since we really don’t know that whole story). Sad that online sites like Facebook and others were used as part of the bullying. Just sad all around.

The headlines on our local paper were blaring about the criminal charges against the high school bullies whose actions led to the death of a classmate. The charges include some counts of rape. It’s one of the only days that I consciously hid the front page of the newspaper from my own children. We’ve talked about the situation in that neighboring town, and we’ve talked about bullying (we’ve had our share of both sides of that coin here), and we’ve talked about an appropriate response. I am not putting my head in the sand, but I am not ready to talk about rape charges, either.

I noticed on Twitter that Kathy Schrock had started to compile some resources for dealing with bullying and cyberbullying issues, and I appreciated that and I wanted to share it out, too. I do talk to my students about this issue and we have some pretty far-ranging talks about how words have power, for good or bad.

This resource by Kathy comes as our state is moving towards enacting a law against bullying which is far-reaching in scope. (Kathy works on the other side of the state). I’m not sure if the law will be effective. The way to stop such action is at the moment it happens, but it may spur administrators to be more pro-active in education around the issues of bullying. Certainly the death of this girl has opened up a lot of eyes.

Cyberbulling Resources from Kathy Schrock

I hope I never see headlines like the ones I have been seeing, ever again.

Peace (please),

Slice of Life: When Quidditch Calls

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Yesterday afternoon, my voice was almost gone, down to a bare whisper, because I spent the day loudly and enthusiastically encouraging my students in games of Quidditch and soccer and even Dodge Ball on a yearly field trip we take to an indoor soccer arena.

Some of you know that our school is now in its 11th year of playing a version of Quidditch that is complicated to learn and amazing to watch and allows for kids of all athletic levels to participate. In a few weeks, the four sixth grade classes will face off in a full-day Quidditch Tournament at our school.

This year, I have a homeroom that struggles to work together due to some personalities but they have been pulling it together lately in ways that have me smiling in satisfaction and they were wonderful yesterday on our field trip. They worked as a team (we are called Dry Ice, see logo). They cheered each other on. They didn’t wallow in mistakes or point fingers at each other.

I tried to set the example, of course, with my rousing cheers and pats on the backs, and doing that one-to-one coaching stuff around hints and suggestions for play, but they were right there with me. And so, tired out and almost out of voice, I felt as if we had accomplished something important as a class yesterday. We were working as a a team, and as cliche as that sounds, it is important.

Peace (on the field),

Slice of Life: Deep Blue Lines

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Sometimes, when I get an hour or so alone in the house, I pull out my guitar and try to write a song or least, work on a melody. Yesterday morning, I had this idea of writing a song about writing, but the song veered off in a different direction as I was writing, and I went with it just to see what might happen. This is one of those songs that may not get any farther than this, to be honest, because it sounds a bit too much like some of my other songs. I like it — I like the message of finding hope even the face of pessimism — but the song isn’t quite interesting enough at this point to move it on. That could change, of course.

Still, here it is: a demo song written and recorded yesterday morning, in an empty house, in about an hour.

Deep Blue Lines
(listen to the song)

I look at the paper and I see the deep blue lines
My heart is full but I’m feeling like I’m falling behind
You can take my words –Go on — take ’em – I don’t mind
Just leave me here in silence for a little while

I can hear the songs playing on the radio
The gospel queens are trying to save my soul
The DJ’s talking in a cadence – soft and low
Just leave me here in silence of the shadows

‘Cause everyone has a story
a story they can tell
about the world outside
and how it’s all gone to hell

But I have a vision
a vision I can see
How the world gets saved
by people like you and me

I hear the morning echo in the stars
You voice is like an angel from afar
as I wait down here in darkness with my guitar
just take my hand and lead me to where we are

Peace (in the light),

Slice of Life: The Lazy Dog

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

You should see our dog in the mornings. We let him sleep on our kids’  beds (not ours) and they have devised an elaborate system for who gets the lunk for the night. (They even have a theme song, sung to Eddie Money, about “Duke’s on my bed tonight, he’s gonna sleep right there until the morning light …”)

My job is to grab him in the mornings and get him outside, and he is often bunkered down hard, huddled up against the boy and reluctant to come with me. He”ll twist away, stretch his head, push his paws out, whatever.  I’m always amazed at how much bed he takes up with his long legs (he’s part lab and part hound, and he has this incredible long, lean body.)

In the dark, I am searching for his collar because the only way to get him is to slowly drag his prone body to the edge of the bed, hold out my hands to catch him (all 60 pounds of him) before he falls and then guide him downstairs. He’ll stretch and yawn and then, with the collar in my hand, he bobs and weaves his head away from me.

All the while, his tail is wagging. It’s an odd way to start the days, but there you go.

Peace (with the dog),

Slice of Life: Screen(media)time Survey

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Yesterday, my students and I were reading aloud Time for Kids in class, which we do quite often for understanding non-fiction text and also to engage in discussion about world events and issues. The cover story in the magazine was about the amount of time that young people spend with media — television, mobile devices, gaming systems, etc.

We had some pretty interesting discussions about the emergence of technology in the lives of young people, including some debate about whether schools should allow cell phones into classrooms (my students: a resounding “no” because of distractions) and whether having the television on while doing homework is a good idea or not. What about music?

Since the TFK article used a recent survey by the Kaiser Foundation as its basis, I decided on a spur of the moment to survey my own students on a few of the same questions.

The questions were:

  • Do you have a television in your bedroom?
  • Do you have your own cell phone?
  • Do you have an MP3 player/iPod?
  • How many computers do you have in your household?

Here are our results. Click on the photo to get a bigger image.

(I used an online graph generator for showing our results, which are shown as percentages. But I can’t figure out why the graph has a 120 as one of the top lines, and there was no clear way for me to remove that data point.)

I guess it’s not surprising that 94 percent own a music device, but it was interesting how many (35 percent) have more than three computers (including laptops) in the house. Not one student did not have any computers at all.

The Kaiser study found that young people average about 7 hours of media/screen time per day. That includes Wii and gaming systems, computer work, mobile devices, and more. My students thought that was a bit excessive and while I did not ask them how many hours they do spend, my guess would be about three hours (based on conversations I have had with them).

Peace (in the data),

A Mentor of Mine gets Featured, Props

When I first starting teaching and did not know what I was doing in the classroom, I took a course offered by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and I was so thankful for the support and philosophy around writing that I discovered there that I became completely immersed into the work of the writing project. One of the teachers in that course was Bruce Penniman, who was also the site director of our WMWP site at the time, and I learned a lot about teaching, and leading, from Bruce. Much of it was no explicit (except for the class). Instead, I learned by watching and listening and stealing ideas that had potential for me (Bruce did a whole unit around reading the Bible as literature … I didn’t go there.)

Bruce, a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, retired a few years ago, and stepped down from his official duties from the WMWP, but he wrote a book about teaching English in high school and yesterday, I opened up my Council Chr0nicle journal from National Council of Teachers of English, and found a nice profile of Bruce and his teaching strategies in there.

Read the article online

It was through working with Bruce that I began to use the concept of what Bruce calls a “stakes” approach to writing, in which students are working for different audiences and therefore, different stakes. For example, in low stakes writing, they are writing in their notebooks, mostly for themselves. In middle stakes, students are writing something to be shared in our class only. High stakes writing is writing for the Web or a newspaper, or some wider audience. By viewing their writing through these lens, I realized I could put more effort into various phases of writing. In order words, I don’t need to correct everything but I can focus on what work I want to do with my young writers. For me, as a young teacher, this changed everything.

You can view my modified version of Bruce’s Stakes Writing Approach on this Google Doc and also, see the website that I created to map out my writing projects and curriculum over the school year, which reflects this approach (I  hope).

Product Image

Bruce’s book — Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support and Success — is out now and the website for the book has some PDF samples that you can check out to see if it is right for you.

I’m grateful that I had Bruce in my circle of people I could learn from. Who did you have in your first years that you could look to for help and understanding? Or, um, theft of good teaching practice?

Peace (in the Bruce),

Slice of Life: Looking at Stars

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Yesterday, I wrote about the Greek Temples being created at my son’s preschool, but I should have mentioned that they went on a field trip this week to a planetarium at a local university. I could not go as a chaperon because  I was overseeing state reading testing of my students and boy, did I wish I were there with my little five-year-old during that time.

Yesterday, my son started to tell me all about the field trip again — it was very exciting! — and then grabbed some paper and began to draw. He’s been intro drawing everything these days.

When he was done, he proudly showed me his picture, which shows a scene of him and his best friend in the Planetarium, with stars above. I asked what some of the other things were, like the black lines coming down (I thought maybe they were meteors or something) and he said they were the levers that are used to make the stars. After the light show, the kids got to work the controls of the equipment and create stars in the fake sky, and he was trying to recreate that scene.

And there I was, in a room in another town, administering a long test to my students in complete silence. Darn it! I wanted to see the stars!

Peace (in the dark),