Writing and Singing Songs with Students

Listen to “I Fall Apart”

We’ve been working on songwriting this week in class. I usually do it right on the tail end of poetry, but I pushed it off and almost did not get to it this year until one particular student kept asking, and asking, and asking until I realized: he really wants to learn about writing songs! So, here we are, working on songwriting.

We analyzed some lyrics this week and listened to music, cranking it up on the whiteboard speakers. I chose Kris Allen’s Live Like We’re Dying and Goo Goo Dolls’ Better Days and Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), which we also sang together with me on my acoustic guitar. These three songs speak well to developing a “theme” and follow a traditional “verse chorus” pattern. I tell my kids to listen closely to their favorite songs and notice the techniques of writing — structurally and also, as a piece of writing.

Yesterday, I shared with them a song that I wrote earlier this year in the aftermath of Haiti. The song — called “I Fall Apart” — is told from the view of a character whose love is trapped in the rubble, and the character is telling them that it will be all right, even as they fear the worst. I then handed out my lyrics, with notes on some ideas that I wanted to draw their attention to, from the writer standpoint. Then, I performed for them. (They mostly seemed appreciative)

We then moved into a song that I wrote a few years ago. This song — “Just Believe” — has a missing verse, and their job is to write it and then, next week, to sing it with me. I have my electric guitar, amps, PA system, and drum machine in the front of the room, and I use all of my cajoling skills to get everyone up there to sing into the microphone, even if they can’t sing. I tell them, this may be your only chance to play with an electric guitarist and sing words you wrote.

Yeah — I wish I had had a teacher who had done that.

Peace (in the muse),

Some Reflective Thoughts on Stopmotion and Students

Yesterday, all of my students watched a DVD of our short stopmotion movies that were created around themes of Figurative Language. Well, not all. A few of the movies are still not done, but another teacher has the laptops for a stretch, and I am not even sure if those uncomplete projects will get done before the school year ends on us.

Not one of my students had ever tried to make a stopmotion movie before, so this was new territory for all of them.

I’ve been thinking about the project and had some reflections about what worked and what didn’t work.

Completely Hooked and Completely Engaged: There is no doubt in my mind that bringing moviemaking, including stopmotion, into the classroom is a huge hit with most students. During the two week stretch — from storyboarding to editing — almost every single student was fully engaged in what they were doing. They were jazzed about making a movie and they rushed into the classroom every day, wanting to get started. You can’t beat that kind of enthusiasm.

It Pays to Have a Theme: Each group was given a term of Figurative Language, and their film was supposed to reflect that term. One year, I gave a lot of latitude to what they could film and it was a near disaster. Chaos and infighting ensued. While I stepped aside  most of the time with this project, I was definitely the teacher at the start, assigning the basis theme of the movie. This gave structure to the project, and of course, made it a learning experience as much as a movie-making experience.

Prep Pays Off: I had my students brainstorm story ideas and then create a “movie pitch” for me to look over. Then, they had to use a storyboard to map out their story. This was all done before the computers were even turned on because once the power button is pushed, they are off to the races.

Mentor Movies: We watched some Wallace and Gromit shorts (including a behind the scenes video), and also a documentary around stopmotion movies. While this took time away from the project, it was invaluable for talking about the effort and patience that goes into stopmotion. They were amazed at the scale of things — how small the sets were and how patient the filmmakers were. I preached that patience every day. But for some 12 year olds, that word doesn’t always register.

First, Pivot: I had then using Pivot Stickfigure for a class period. This simple program is great for introducing the concept of “frames” of stopmotion. You can literally see the movie unfold along the stop of the screen. Kids love Pivot, too. What I noticed is they learned to slow down the movements of characters, which then translates into smoother actions. Pivot allowed them time to experiment a bit because if you make a mistake, it is easy enough to fix.

No Scripts, Bad Move (for some): I looked at the calendar and counted the days that I would have the laptops in my head and realized that I needed to push things along. I made the decision to allow groups to use the storyboard as a script and not write out dialogue. I’m not sure this was a good decision, as some of the movies became slightly incoherent and just a jumble of footage, as opposed to a story. I think the script would have helped provide a framework for the narration of voices. I’m second-guessing myself on this one.

Corrupt Files: This was frustrating and I think it is a result of our laptops now getting older and not working as well as they once did. Some groups spent a long time shooting a scene, saved the raw footage and then … the video file became corrupt. For the most part, I was pretty amazed at how well they took it (no one threw the computer out the window). They would sigh, shrug and get back to work re-filming the scene. I think my students are more resilient than I would be in the same circumstances.

Wiki Stix Rock: In years past, I have used clay with students to create characters. Honestly, it gets messy with 80 students and the clean-up time takes away from the filming time. This year, I went with Wiki Stix — little bendable sticks — and they were a huge hit. A lot of groups brought in props, too, but they loved the wiki stix. And I loved that there was no mess! Plus, the size of the wiki stix were perfectly scaled for the frame of the stopmotion movie.

Staying on Topic: I mentioned how every group had a figurative language theme. Not every group was successful in keeping on topic, and there are a few movies (all from groups of boys) that make no sense at all. I tried to get around to help as many groups as I could, but as one teacher in a room of up to 10 different projects going on at once, I was not always able to get everywhere, all the time. And some groups nodded their heads when I came to help them and then continued what they were doing as if I had not even been there. The strange thing is that even as we watched them on the DVD, these group members continued to think that their movies were clearly the top of the crop, even as peers were asking “what was that about?”

Ungraded Project: Partially because this was an end-of-year project and partially because assessing moviemaking is difficult, I decided that this would not be a graded project. I never told my students this and only one student (out of 80) even bothered to ask if they would be graded. I wonder now, though, about those groups who could not find focus and whether the grade incentive would have kept them better on track. Perhaps not. But, after we watched the DVD yesterday, I asked a few questions about figurative language and they mostly had a good understanding of their own term (from their own movie) and terms shown in other movies. So, that works for me. (Plus, there is no line on our new standards-based progress report for “making movies.”)

Girls versus Boys: This is an observation across a few years of experience. Girls stay much more on task with this project and are more likely to start over if something doesn’t go right than boys are. Boys rush things and are easily wowed by some cool effect. Boys are more likely to try something new — like holding the camera at odd angles — and then they live with that in their movie, even if it doesn’t help the story. Girls are all about the story, and they patiently construct the movie around the story. I think, too, that in this project, the groups of girls were more attuned that their movie might get a world-wide audience (via our blog and Longfellow 10) while the boys were more interested in impressing the friends in the room. The result? The girls’ movies are more refined than the boys’ movies, and that is pretty much across every single class. It’s interesting.

If you want to learn more about stopmotion, I created the Making Stopmotion Movie site to help teachers. And some of our movies are being published over at The Longfellow 10 collaborative website. If your class makes movies, you are invited to join us at the LF10.

Peace (in the reflections),

A Note that Made My Day

I received an email from a colleague in the Western Massachusetts Writing Project who is teaching a course at the college level for the first time around technology and education. He developed a great syllabus and I tried to give him some ideas about practical uses of technology in the classroom.

Yesterday, he sent me an email.

Sometimes as teachers we do not know about all the ways we help our students until a much later time. That will not be the case this time. A few weeks ago you gave me some tips, some new sites to try. Wallwisher was a big hit, as was the NWP site. We played your Vimeo video on technology last class, and it was almost as good as having you with us in person. And your message resonated with all of the students in the class.
(Here, he provided me with some of the response from one of his students, who talked about using Wallwisher for class collaboration and sharing)

It is clear from your writing that you have a BIG impact on the students and staff at Norris, but you should know that you have had a BIG impact on the work of 20 teachers who are taking the Intro to Tech in Education class at the Elms this summer. Amanda–the author of the above comment–would have never have heard of Wallwisher without the tip from you…and now she is using it to point her students in the right direction as they head out for summer vacation. Simply amazing!

That kind of letter makes my day. I’m glad the sharing I do can help someone else.

Peace (in the note),

iPod Program at my school

We recently received a Thinkfinity grant that will allow us to purchase some iPods and develop connections to science and math, with technology. The local newspaper did an article on it.

Peace (in the news),

Talkin’ Oil Spill

By now, all of my sixth graders have read the book Flush by Carl Hiasson and we have talked and worked around environmental themes in the book. Yesterday, we talked about the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills, and the habitats and ecosystems that were being affected. I had deep, insightful questions and concerns from my students, most of whom were aware of the spill but not the extent.

I began the lesson with a listening of an NPR story from back in April, about a week after the spill happened, and I had a sheet of basic questions ready for them to fill out as they listened. What is the name of the company? How much oil is coming out? What was the name of the oil rig? etc. Then, we talked about what has changed since April.Back then, the estimate was around 1,000 gallons a day coming out. Now, of course, the estimate is around 500,000 gallons per day. I shared with them the running Oil Spill Ticker to get a sense of how much oil is now in the gulf (estimated: 22 million gallons).

A quick glance at the popular live stream of the oil piqued their interest, too.
Streaming .TV shows by Ustream

We then looked at an interactive map from NY Times that shows the area of the oil spill as it progresses over time. Most noticed the outlines of the Gulf Stream, which sparked the discussion of oil moving towards Florida (where Flush is set and where endangered turtles are at the heart of the story) and whether the oil will move up the eastern seaboard towards our neck of the woods (possible).

At another site about wildlife in the Gulf, we gathered information about the pelicans and seabirds, the turtles (again), plankton and other animals in the Gulf ecosystem, and how both the oil and the chemical dispersants might impact the area for decades to come. A slideshow of images, including birds drenched in oil, sparked outrage among my students, who asked all sorts of questions about attempts to contain the oil (I did my best).

Finally, to give them a sense of the scale of the spill, I took them to a website called If It Was My Home that overlays the spill’s geographic contours on a map of where you live. For us, the spill would cover most of Massachusetts, parts of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine, and into New York. I could hear some gasps as students began to comprehend the scale of things.

All of this brought us to discuss the need for alternative energy and ways that people can help the disaster relief effort (a handful of kids came up to me afterwards and asked for ideas for summer projects to raise money to send to Gulf Relief. I wish we had more time in the school year to launch something ourselves, but I don’t think we have time).

The message I sent to them: pay attention to current events and be engaged in the world, as the decisions being made today by politicians and companies will impact the world they are moving into as young adults. I hope — I think — they have been getting the message. Sometime, you plant a seed and hope for the best.

Peace (in awareness),


Gaming the World

Here is an interesting video — when old video games take over the world. It’s called “Pixels” by Patrick Jean.

Peace (in the pong),

It’s About Time: Ning Archive Tool


One of the frustrating elements of using Ning (besides the fact that they are making a huge shift soon away from free) is that there didn’t seem to be any easy way to save or archive your content on a Ning. That meant that unless you painfully copy and pasted your content, it would all get lost when you closed your network.

Today, Ning announced that it will be releasing a tool soon that runs on Adobe Air which archives content from a Ning site. I’ll be interested in seeing how well it works, since I have a couple of sites that I won’t be continuing under the new Ning plan but still don’t want to lose the work that has been done there.

Peace (in the save file),


Student Stopmotion Movies

Yesterday, the real deadline for my students to complete their Figurative Language Stopmotion Movies came and most (alas, not all) of the groups finished up, some in a big hurry. I’ll be reflecting a bit as a teacher on the project another day this week, but I thought I might share one or two of the short movies with you. Over the next week or so, I’ll be posting a handful at the collective Longfellow 10 site.

Here is a movie about alliteration.

Here is a movie about hyperbole.

Here is a movie about personification.

Here is a movie about metaphor.

Peace (in the shows),

Why We Write: WMWP Responds

Yesterday, I wrote about as Wordle created from responses to the question of Why Do You Write which was posed to incoming teachers at our Summer Institute for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. A few weeks ago, at an executive board meeting of WMWP, I asked the same question as a writing prompt (we write at every meeting) and then used my Flip camera to capture the remarks. The result is the video here, which I think is a powerful statement about the way writing gets at the heart of learning, for our students and for ourselves.

Peace (in the writing),