Supporting Writing in Content Areas

(This is an edited version of a blog post I wrote yesterday for another site)

A roomful of teachers in various content areas — ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, Technology, etc. — came together this evening to talk about ways that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project can support writing across the curriculum. This meeting is part of a grant that our site has received around Writing Across the Curriculum. We had a nice dinner and then worked in small groups on a number of questions before sharing out what we were discovering from each other.

In my small group, we identified a few areas of concern with our students:

  • Non-fiction reading and writing seem to be an overall area of weakness and our students need more support in interpreting non-fiction text and then, analyzing and reflecting on that text;
  • Our students need to do a better job (or we teachers need to do a better job) of transferring the skills they are learning in the ELA classrooms around writing skills in the other content areas. They don’t leave their “writers’ hat” on the hook when they leave the ELA classroom, but students need to be taught to remember and use those skills;
  • Our students need more help with interpretative skills, going deeper with their writing in all areas, and really tapping into the “writing to learn” mentality.

We also talked about how our writing project can help teachers in these areas:

  • Develop strategies for content-area teachers who are afraid of correcting writing (or don’t see the value in writing skills in their content);
  • Refashion the identity of our writing project so that it is welcoming to all teachers, not just ELA teachers because we have “writing” in our title;
  • Show the connections of reading and writing skills in the “real world” or marketplace for students;
  • Showcase more digital media and use of technology to engage students in all content areas, and get them writing and composing even when they don’t quite realize that is what they are doing.

And this was just a tip of the discussions around the table.

Peace (in the talks),

NWP and MacArthur Foundation, continued

Last year, the National Writing Project received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop resources and engage in conversations about the integration of technology into our concepts of writing, and then bringing those ideas out to other teachers. In November, we held a large one-day event that brought together all sorts of smart people to talk about the implications of digital media in the lives of young writers, and what such a move looks like in the classroom.

I consider myself lucky to be part of the project known as Digital Is … and I just saw on the RSS wire this morning that the MacArthur Foundation has graciously extended the grant funding (translating into $1.1 million in grants over two years).

Here is a blurb from the news:

The focus of the two-year grant will be on developing and disseminating resources and professional development opportunities for teachers, building processes and rubrics for assessing multimodal student work, and collaborating with other organizations working to support young people in using new digital technologies. Established in 2008, “Digital Is” enables local writing project sites across the country to conduct workshops and develop resources for teachers in all 50 states.

I’m excited about the entire Digital Is concept and I have been working with teachers here in the Western Massachusetts Writing Project around developing resources for a future Digital Is web-based home.

Here is a video of a discussion that took place back in November as the culmination of the Digital Is conference:

Peace (in the digital world),

Digital Writing Matters

Troy Hicks (of the Chippewa River Writing Project and author of The Digital Writing Workshop) has put together an interesting slideshow for a presentation around a book he has been working on with the National Writing Project called Because Digital Writing Matters (a spin on an earlier NWP book called Because Writing Matters).

As with most everything that Troy does, this slideshow deserves a look, and the book (not yet published, I don’t think) should be another keeper in our collection of tomes laying out the foundation for the New Literacy movement in the classroom, particularly around composition with media and technology.

Peace (in the slides),

Learning the tricks of videos

When I was a kid, someone bought me the Klutz book of Juggling, which came with three beanbags and funny instructions on how to juggle. Never would I have imagined that I could juggle, but the Klutz book led the way. You should see my students faces when we are standing in line and I start juggling a few Koosh balls. I’m not that good at it, but good enough to keep the three balls in the air for a few minutes.

Franki, over at  A Year of Reading, has been moving her way into moviemaking with students and she wrote a fantastic post the other day about the Klutz Tricky Video book, and its accompanying video site. Needless to say, I bought the book.

My two older sons have been pouring over its pages in detail, as it shows how to trick the eye of the viewer with video tricks (I love the tilted table, and the stretchy arm, and the basketball shot from far far far away.) Like so many other Klutz books, this one is for beginners, with nothing more than curiosity and a few simple tools. They even say that while a computer would be helpful for editing, it’s not necessary (you just have to know when to cut a shot and how to use sound effects).

A lot of the special effects are really stopmotion techniques, which is why I have added it to my resource list on my new Making Stopmotion Movies website.

If you know a kid who has more than a passing interest in making movies (and who doesn’t know that kid? If you don’t, you’re not looking at the kids around you close enough), then this book is a great purchase. And send them to the companion video site to see the movies described in the book, in action. At the least, you are sure to get a kick out them.

Plus, you get one of those fancy director’s chalkboards, with places to write in scenes and cuts and stuff, and you can even click down the top of it and shout out: Action! just like in the movies.

Peace (in the action),

Why isn’t Wimpy Kid movie a comic?

I’m feeling a bit like a movie grouch today, what with my sour review of Percy Jackson and all. But while sitting through a series of previews yesterday, we watched the trailer for the upcoming Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie. Now, here is another series of books that my sons adore being made into a movie. Good enough. These days, we expect popular books to make the shift to the big screen.

But here is my question: why in the world didn’t they transform Wimpy Kid into a movie as a comic or cartoon or whatever animation term you want to use? Why turn one of the book’s most charming elements — its simple and delightful artwork of Greg and his family and friends — into live action? Sure, the young actors seem cute enough, and they might even find the sweet spot with Jeff Kinney’s humor (I hope so, since I surely will have to sit through it with my sons). But it seems to me that this is a flaw in the process of taking a graphic novel into the realm of the visual.

It reminds me of how Persepolis made the powerful transition from graphic novel to movie. Marjane Satrapi, who wrote and illustrated the books, also directed the movie and she successfully (I would say) shifted her story to the screen by keeping the story centered as animation. Granted, the tone of the stories are completely different. But she has showed us the way.

So, it can be done.

I admit: I am disappointed in Kinney here for not forcing the issue of animation for his books (although, who knows what factors go into such decisions and he may not have had a voice in the matter once he sold the rights, or he may not have wanted to spend the time overseeing such a production, or whatever … so, I forgive you, Jeff Kinney.)

Peace (in the rant),


The Percy Jackson/Lightning Thief Movie Review


I took my older boys to see Percy Jackson and the Olympians yesterday (better known as The Lightning Thief in our house, for the first book by Rick Riordan) and I came away disappointed. Yeah, I know. Movies from books will do that to you.  And director Chris Columbus has created a popcorn event here with Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It’s a good flick for the drive-in.

But what is most disappointing is that Columbus didn’t have to do what he did in creating the movie from the book. They could have stayed true to the book and had a killer movie on their hands that went deeper with characters, deeper with the story, and deeper with the Greek mythology that seeps through the pores of Riordan’s books.

Here are some things that stood out for me after the movie:

  • The monsters are pretty incredible, except for Medusa. I don’t know. She didn’t seem fierce enough for my tastes, given who she is, but the other creatures were pretty scary and a good use of computer graphics. Uma Thurman as Medusa was a good choice, but I was disappointed. Hades in his full glory, in particular, was nasty as was the Fury who first attacks Percy. The kid sitting next to me almost jumped into his mom’s lap when the Fury made its appearance.
  • One of the joys of the book is that Percy only slowly comes to understand who his father is (Poseidon) through actions and events that happen to him. The film dispenses with all that and hammers the viewer over the head with the fact that Poseidon is Percy’s father. Talk about taking the mystery out of a whole section of the story and not allowing the viewer to have to think. So much for foreshadowing.
  • Ares, the God of War, and a central figure in the theft of the Lighting Bolt is nowhere to be found in the movie. Not a mention. In the book, when Percy battles Areas, and wins, it’s a moment of triumph and power for the young demigod. We see the potential of Percy in that moment (and also, we learn the truth about the theft of the bolt through Ares). That seems like a pretty significant omission, except …
  • No  mention of the Titans, Kronos or Tartarus either, and the whole concept of the book is that the lightning bolt has been stolen from Zeus to start a war between the gods that will allow Kronos and his kin to come back together (they were chopped to bits by the Olympians and tossed into Tartarus) and overthrow the Olympian gods. This is such an incredible omission of the story that I still can’t believe it. How could you leave out this central part of the story tht underlies, well, everything? And why would you? If they plan on making movies of the other books in the series, this emergence of the Titans lays the groundwork for future stories. My gosh.
  • I liked the character of Annabeth a whole lot better in the book than in the movie.  Sure, the actress is cute and all that, but in the book, she is a formidable foil for Percy, and their banter (easily transferred to the screen, I would think — what, not one “seaweed brain” comment?) is fun to read. I guess I am just glad that Annabeth and Percy don’t kiss, although they clearly have the hots for each other (did I mention that they bumped up the age level of the characters, too? Percy is no sixth grader in the movie.)
  • I also can’t fathom the omission of the Oracle of Delphi in the movie. The prophesy is what drives Percy forward on his quest and what makes him think twice about everything he does. In the movie, he just decides he is going to head out and find his mom, and goes.  In the book, the prophesy opens the doors to the quest and its echo is part of the narrative of action. It’s a personal journey in the movie as opposed to an Epic Quest.
  • They moved a scene from the St. Louis Arch (a classic moment in the book) to Nashville. Huh? Was it too hard to construct a scene at the Arch?
  • I really do love the character of Percy in the book. He is funny, full of spunk, recognizable to any sixth grader, and his hubris is a character trait that my students learn to track throughout the story. His snubbing of the gods in the book is what drives the story in different directions (such as, mailing off the head of Medusa to Zeus with a little note of love from Percy Jackson). None of that in the movie. While the actor playing Percy did a decent job, I missed the depth of the book character. I didn’t find myself cheering Percy on in the movie so much as I did in the book.
  • Last thing. Mrs. Dodds is the Fury that first attacks Percy. In the book, she is Percy’s math teacher. In the movie, Mrs. Dodds is the English teacher. An English teacher? Whoever heard of a demon English teacher? (Kevin says from his perch as an English teacher)

Next week, we take our entire sixth grade class to the movie, as we read the novel as part of our curriculum (with emphasis on Greek Mythology). I’ll be interested to see what they think. I am sure that, like my own sons, they will enjoy the spectacle of the movie and get a head rush from the action. But will they see the holes in the story? Will they care?

The Oracle of Delphi tells me that they will.

Peace (in the prophesy),

My New Stopmotion Movie Web Resource

(Head to Making Stopmotion Movies)

In less than a week, I will be heading off to Ohio for the Dublin Literacy Conference and one of my sessions is with parents and kids around creating stopmotion movies. I have handouts, but I really wanted a website resource that I could direct people to if they were truly interested in creating stopmotion movies.

Yesterday morning, I worked for a bit on a site, got feedback from my Twitter friends and others, and I think it is just about ready. My aim was to provide some inspiration for those wondering about how to make movies, access to the free tools that I use with my students and my own sons, and insights into what I have learned from doing claymation and other stopmotion movies with young people.

This morning, I put some finishing touches on the site, adding a few more movies. There is still some tinkering to do, but mostly, I think it is a good resource for people, and something I am proud to have created, particularly for the large numbers of parents and kids who will be attending my session on Saturday in Dublin.

Feel free to pass the site along through your network. If you are inspired, and you get your students making movies, give me a shout because our Longfellow Ten site is always on the lookout for more student work. The LF10 is a stopmotion moviemaking syndicate (sounds devious, doesn’t it?) that features student films.

Head to the Making Stopmotion Movies website

Peace (in the frames),

Supporting the National Writing Project

With concerns about changing in funding from the federal government for education, the National Writing Project has set up a new site with information about our network of teachers.

It is called NWP WORKS!

If are you part of NWP, please write or contact your representatives in Washington. If you are not part of NWP, but wonder what it is, then the site can help you, too.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all.

Peace (in the network),

So, you want to play Quidditch?

Yesterday, the day before our February break, we gathered all of the the sixth graders together to begin discussing Quidditch season at our school. Yes, we play Quidditch and it is both exciting (all paths lead to a sixth grade tournament in April) and frustrating (all brains seem to fixate on the tournament). The key for us teachers is to use the excitement for learning, and we do all sorts of art, writing, math and other curricular activities.

So, what is our game of Quidditch? Glad you asked. Last year, I created this video that shows the way we play our game.  And I wrote a song about Quidditch, too, called The Q Rap.

Take a listen to the song.

Take a look at the video.

Peace (on the field),