Slice of Life: Dry Ice, baby!

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

I am so proud of my class.

This week, they did the difficult task of choosing a name for our Quidditch team (We play a version of Quidditch at our school in which all sixth grades compete against each other on a Tournament Day. Here is a video tutorial of our game.). This process is often difficult, as some sections of the class try to unite against others, and instead of an activity that pulls us together, it divides us apart.

And, to be honest, the mix in my class this year is one of the most challenging that I have in a long time, so I worried about it.  A lot. I also spent extra time talking about the values of community — of coming together even when you don’t quite agree, of being respectful of all the voices in the room, and of the semi-democratic process of voting and living with the final tally.

They were stars.

Respectful of each other, avoiding the comments that can undermine the class, and after brainstorming a list of about 30 names (most of which are inspired by our team color of Blue, so water and ice and cold often make their way into the mix), they were all excited when we finally arrived at a name: Dry Ice.

We then had a long discussion about a team logo for Dry Ice, and they did some sketch work on some designs. The first one ran into problems. It featured a skull and crossbones. I took it to our vice principal, who wasn’t too happy (mainly because all of the little kids in our school will make posters for the different teams).

I went back and explained where things stood, and then, as  a class, we agreed that a flying snitch might be better, and they got to work again. So, the final design is the name Dry Ice spelled out in ice cubes, with steam rising and a snitch floating in the mist. I like it, but most of all, I am proud of our class for going through the process.

Not all learning is done from a book.

Peace (in the ice),

Slice of Life: The Man Who Wrote The Man Who Walked

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

So, yesterday was one of those days so crammed with activity that I could probably write four or five slices out of it, but I’ll concentrate on just this one: the renowned writer/illustrator Mordecai Gerstein came to our school to talk with my students (and others) for about an hour. Do you know him? He wrote such picture books as The Awful Alphabet, The Mountains of TibetWhat Charlie Heard, and, one of my all-time favorites, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, about Philippe Petite’s acrobatic dance on a wire between the now-destroyed Twin Towers of NYC. (I once did a podcast review of this book. Take a listen).

I had to pop in and out of the session (we did get our tech problem fixed for Progress Reports and I needed to check them out and print them out during this time), but he had some wonderful things to say about writing, and drawing, and making books full of imagination.

“A picture book is like a little movie theater you hold in your hand,” Gerstein said, adding that this is a low-tech way to share stories with your friends. Pass them a book and watch their eyes light up.

Earlier, as he crumpled up a large sheet of paper on purpose, he turned to the kids and urged them to take risks, make mistakes and keep trying. He was referring to drawing, but really, this is a lesson for life. I kept an eye on these 80 sixth graders, and they were pretty rapt with attention, particularly as his pen moved across the paper.

“I’ve messed up a lot of paper in my life and I hope to mess up even more,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”

I am thankful to our art teacher and our librarian for finding ways to bring folks like Mordecai Gerstein to our school and hope his talk sparks something special in some of the kids in the audience.

But that wasn’t all that was special about the day. After meeting with Mordecai, we then boarded a bus that took us up to the high school, where the students there performed a “preview” of their incredible production of the Wizard of Oz. They were fantastic and it was so neat to see so many former students on the stage. And for my students, it was something that stirred excitement in a lot of them who are interested in drama.

Peace (in the pictures),

I’m now also over at Instructify

Last year, I saw a call from Bill Ferris at Instructify, searching for writers for the site. I gave it a shot, and submitted a query, and Bill started to bring me on board as a staff writer. Then budget cuts hit and I was laid off before I was even hired. A few months ago, Bill contacted me again and asked if I was still interested. Heck yes, I said (or something like that), and so now, I am starting to do some writing about resources and online apps that might be helpful to teachers.

Here is how the site is described:

The Instructify philosophy–Teach smarter, not harder.

Instructify is where teachers can stock their toolboxes with practical, time-saving classroom ideas and cutting edge methods of instruction. It’s where to find useful, free technology to utilize in the classroom. And it’s a fun place to spend your planning period.

Instructify is also a verb. To Instructify means to find new ways to present the same old content. Or MacGyvering anything from software to Post-it notes into something you can teach with. It also works great as a command. As in, “Don’t just teach, Instructify!”

I like Instructify because the posts get right to the point. I hope you will like it, too. My first article just got posted by Bill and it is about using Stopmotion Animator software with kids.  I am also working on a longer piece for Instructify’s parent site — LEARN NC. — on using online postering sites like Glogster in the classroom.

Take a look. Leave a comment. I appreciate it.

Peace (in the sharing),

Slice of Life: The Progress Report Blues

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

We in the midst of our first year transition away from traditional Report Cards into standards-based Progress Reports, which has shifted us away from letter grades and into standards. I am fine with that direction, although I have some concerns about the implementation in our district. It has not really gone all that smooth but I don’t want to get too deep into it here.

My sixth grade team and I do all of our Progress Reports online (Powerteacher) and the rest of our school is on the way. It is rather time-consuming to enter each standard assessment on each line. I’ve worked a few hours on my four classes, for sure. Then, yesterday, a day before the reports are to go home (today!), a colleague noticed a quirk in what is being printed and shot me an email about it. Sure enough, two sections of my ELA reports seem to vanish when the system prints out a report.

OK, so that’s not good. I was emailing the tech folks last night to figure it out and I am hopeful that this will be fixed before the end of today, when we are sending home the reports. That’s just a few hours away. Gulp. I see an email saying they are working on it, so I am pretty hopeful but still, I hate waiting until the last minute to do anything.

Just one more headache in the mix, but luckily, there is some sweetness on tap for today with my students that I will have to write about tomorrow, after the slice happens. I just need to remember to have my camera with me during the day today.

Peace (in progress),

Slice of Life: Night Train

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

The very first rock concert that I ever attended was the prog-rock band, Yes, and I joined a group of friends and my older brothers and his friends. It was at the Hartford Civic Center and I still remember the feeling of the bass notes pounding through my heart. (Ironically, Yes just came around again, hitting my town a few weeks ago but I didn’t go.)

I mention this because last night, I took my older boys (10, 12) to their very first rock concert. The band, Train, was in town at a theater and I thought Train would be a good intro into the concert experience. I was right. The boys were thrilled, and the band put an a great show, complete with lights, loud guitars and power pop singing. The three of us danced in the aisles together, along with the crowd, to songs like Soul Sister, Drops of Jupiter, Virginia and more. (Their website allows you to take a listen for free to a bunch of songs.)

The band even covered a few songs, so I would bend down from time to time, and say, “That’s Led Zepelin,” or “That’s a song from Van Halen” and “Doobie Brothers did that one, first,” as if I were giving some tour of music that shaped my world as a kid.

A few highlights from the show:

  • Their version of Led Zep‘s “Ramble On” was incredible and singer Pat Monahan was like a replica of Robert Plant. This guy can sing and hit the notes.
  • At one point, Monahan said that he liked small concert halls because of the acoustics. He then asked if he could sing us a song “without this microphone getting in the way of you and me,” and we all cheered. He put down the mic, stood up tall and then serenaded us with no amplification on a powerful song whose name I now forget. I thought that was pretty cool.
  • The band brought a whole lot of fans on stage to dance, and help sing songs, and I thought, these guys are having too much fun. Later, I told my boys that I thought Monahan had a real stage presence and put on quite a show. Not quite like Bruce Springsteen, perhaps, but Monahan knew his audience well.
  • The opening act was Butch Walker and the Black Widows. They were very energetic, too, and I kind of liked them. I always pay attention to opening bands because sometimes, they are the stars of the future.

It was late when we finally left, and with the clock change, I imagine today is going to be a bit of a drag. But it was worth it. Oh, one other funny slice of the event. My sons filled up some baggies with cheese popcorn (they are always hungry), but worried as we walked to the theater that they would be in trouble if they got caught smuggling in food.

“What will they do to us if they catch us?” my 10 year old wanted to know.

What I thought was, kid, you don’t know the kinds of things I have smuggled into concerts in my day. What I said was, “Aww, don’t worry about it. It’s just popcorn.”

No one even checked.

Peace (in the show),

Losing the Jabberwock

Yesterday, I took my older kids to see Alice in Wonderland in 3D, and while I continue to be impressed by the vision of Tim Burton, I wondered about the concept of using the poem “Jabberwocky” as the main narrative device for this retelling of Alice.

This is a spoiler alert, by the way. I won’t tell too much, but still, if you have not seen the movie, you may want to skip me right now.

Each year, I read Jabberwocky out loud to my sixth graders and we have a very interesting discussion about what is going on and what the bandersnatch might be and just who is the hero and why are they after the jabberwock, and how gross or cool is it to come home with the head of your foe (this usually comes down to gender).

Normally, my reading of the poem by Lewis Carroll is the first time they have encountered it, although it surely will not be the last. No more. Now, they will have Alice in their heads and come to the discussion with Tim Burton’s ideas of the poems dancing around, and I am sort of frustrated about that. It’s one last bit of imagination drained away by mass media.

I know that the poem was originally part of the Alice books, so I guess it makes some sense.

It just seems strange to have the Alice movie (by the way, I was smitten by the actress playing Alice — Mia Wasikowska) center around her discovering the vorpal sword, befriending the bandersnatch, and then slaying the jabberwock to save the white queen on what is known as Frabjous Day. I’m all for girls being the heroes, and understand Burton’s desire to make the story fresh and new, but this seemed odd to me.

Maybe I am just too critical and want to keep the possibilities of discovery of the poem to myself and my students.

Peace (in the poems),

Slice of Life: To Coach or Not To Coach

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

Yesterday, I brought my middle son to the Little League baseball evaluations, which often resemble a football combine where coaches walk around with clipboards, jotting down notes as the prospective ballplayers do their best to his the ball, pitch the ball and catch the ball after a winter of not even knowing where their gloves are (yeah, we had a bit of a scramble to find a glove).

My older son is all set. When you get to the “A” level, you stay on the same team, so there is no need to impress anyone. My middle son is right on the cusp — old enough to make the leap to “A” but young enough to stay in “B” for another year. He wants to go up to “A” and I think he is ready (mostly), and if he does go up to the “A” league, he will be on his older brother’s team.

It would be the first and maybe last time the two of them will be on a sports team together, given their age difference. They are always in two different levels, it seems, because they are just far enough apart in age.

My son did fantastic at the evaluations, if you don’t mind me saying.

His pitching was fast and on target, and his form was pretty amazing. He bashed some balls high and far. He caught grounders that came rocketing towards him. A few coaches asked if he was moving up. They were jotting notes down on their list about him. I nodded, but reminded them that he would be “taken” by his brother’s team (there is no way we are going to have two kids on two different teams). A few sighed at that reality.

Of course, it all depends on the draft, where coaches sit around and pick kids for teams. Those kids on the age bubble, like my son, will go last, and only if there are spaces on teams. But if my son is to move up (and it seems likely, as I mentioned), then we know where is going.

Meanwhile, as I was hovering like the dad that I am, I was stopped by the head coach of my older son’s “A” team.

“There you are,” he said. This coach is a serious coach, the coach of the high school varsity baseball team, and his daughter is on my older son’s team. He knows baseball, inside and out, and he has high expectations for the players on the team.

So, I thought: “Uh oh.”

He looked at me. “I need an assistant coach. Could you do it?”

Now, on one hand, that’s a cool thing to be asked, right? But honestly, I don’t know baseball all that well. Not the ins and outs of it. I’ve been an assistant down in lower levels, where my job has been to cheer kids on (that, I can do) and tell them to run the bases, hard, when someone hits the ball. This, however, is a whole other level. Last year, this same coach handed me the scorebook early in the year and asked me to keep track of the game, and I fumbled it to the point where he took it back and did it himself, while also coaching.

I told him I had think about it and consult with my wife.

“I want to be upfront,” I told him. “I don’t really know baseball. You’re asking me to help, and I appreciate it, but I want to be clear about it. My baseball knowledge is very limited.” (I wanted to add, my baseball background is playing Little League, pick-up ball in my neighborhood as a kid and drinking beer at Fenway Park, but I didn’t.)

“That’s OK,” he answered, “I just need a warm body.”

Did he mean that? Or what? So, I think I may do it, if only because I can spend time with both of my sons on the baseball field in spring and maybe, I can bring some fun into the mix. And did I mention I can cheer up a storm? Yeah, I’m good at that.

Peace (in the decision),

Will Newspapers live on at Google News Archive?

I saw this in my reader this morning — another push by Google to digitize text and archive it for eternity (or at least, until the servers crash). Google News Archive allows you to search old newspapers, and there is even an interesting “timeline option” that allows you to go back in time.

“The News Archive Partner Program provides a way for Google and publishers and repositories to partner together and make historical newspaper archives discoverable online. As part of Google News, the News archive search function provides an easy way to search and explore historical archives. For articles already in digital format, we’ve worked with the hosts of these archives to crawl and index their materials. When materials aren’t easily available in digital format, we have partnered with the copyright holder to scan and present the newspaper in a way that is full-text searchable, fast and easy to navigate,” explains Google.

The search is free, but when I searched my birth date (what was going on in the world the day I was born?), I noticed that the search brought me headlines and the first paragraph, but then, most newspapers charge you to get the rest. There are a few that are completely, free, though.

I’m OK with that — if I want the archives, I have to pay, and if that helps keep newspapers afloat for another year (well, I am not buying that many articles, but you get the idea), than that is a system I can support.

Peace (in the history),

Slice of Life: String Theory and Mr. Annoying

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

I know there is already a fully-formed theory called String Theory that has to do with theoretical physics and particles of the Universe. But I also have a String Theory and it has do with adolescents (although, I confess, I am not sure if is a boy-thing, or gender-free).

When I was around 12 years old, I remember reading on my bed one night and wanting to turn off the light. The switch on the wall was not more than a five or six feet away, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was comfortable. The light seemed far away. I tried to conjure up some magic powers to turn the lights off. That didn’t work. Then, I started thinking: if I could rig up some sort of system that would allow me to lounge on my bed but still turn off the lights, that would be pretty cool.

So, the next day, I found some string and began an elaborate Rube Goldberg-style system of strings that hung from the doorjams, snaked across the walls and dangled down near my hand. It wasn’t perfect. If I pulled too hard, the whole contraption would tumble down into my lap. But it was good enough. Later, I began to work on a similar idea for opening and closing the door (this was more difficult. Opening was easy enough but shutting required some sort of reverse pulley, a concept I could not wrap my brain around.)

I spent more time and energy on the construction of the invention than I would have if I had just got my butt up and turned off the light each night, but as educators, we know that is beside the point, right?

Which brings us to the modern day household. Last week, I walked up to the older boys’ rooms and there was string everywhere. Plus, scissors and some tape, as well.

“What are you doing?”

” Inventing.”

“Inventing what?” (note: the 12 year old is hard to get info out of, these days. and the 10 year old was following his brother’s lead in his own room).

“A way to turn the lights off.”

“Why don’t you just reach over and turn them off,” I said, looking at the short distance between his bed and the light switch. Literally, he could stretch and never leave the bed and still get his light. This kid is lazy, I thought, before the memory of my own efforts suddenly came flooding back.

“At night, when Duke (our dog) is sleeping, I don’t want to wake him up. If I shift too much, he starts moving. Then, he becomes Mr. Annoying.”

All for a dog …

I looked over his design, noticed that my concepts for Bed-to-Light were stronger (the competitive streak comes out), nodded to him to continue on and walked away. He may not play music, but this kid sure got my inventive gene. Too bad that genetic element rarely got me beyond String Theory.

Peace (in the string),

Slice of Life: A Post-Concert Tally

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

The other week, my school held a Benefit Concert with staff and student musicians. I organized much of it and the payoff was the music itself, being able to jam with a bunch of students and friends, and watching current and former students shine on the stage.

But there was a bigger purpose, too, which was to collect donated books for schools in New Orleans still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina (which was an idea from one of my students which sparked the idea of a concert in the first place) and to collect coins for our school’s ongoing efforts to support the Pennies for Peace organization.

I finally got the tallies of the donations.

First, we collected about $350 in coins that night from the audience for Pennies for Peace. That’s more than I thought we had, but those coins sure do add up when they are counted (not by hand, thankfully, but by bank machine).

Second, we have about 12 large boxes filled with donated books and a few bags continue to show up at my classroom door from time to time. A student and his mother have been in charge of figuring out what to do next, as they are part of a church organization that regularly ships donations down to New Orleans. But my student surprised me the other day by saying that he and his mom were going to personally deliver the books to the elementary school chosen to receive the books.

“How will you do that?” I wondered.

“We’re going to drive,” he said proudly. “And I am going to take my camera, and flip video, and take pictures of the school.”

I thought to myself, that’s a long trip from Massachusetts to New Orleans, but later, his mom said they were looking forward to an April vacation adventure, and I could only think: that will be a cool learning experience for this student who sparked the idea for a concert, played drums on the stage (and whose self-esteem is now rocketing as a result) and now gets to deliver our school’s donations right to the school itself.

“I can’t wait to see the pictures and hear about it,” I said, and he beamed.

Now, I am thinking: this has all the makings of a cool digital story project for him. Hmmmm.

Peace (in the pennies),