TTT: The NWP Digital Is Site

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of being invited onto Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast to talk about the official launch of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website, which is home to many interesting projects that push the possibilities of technology and learning. I have contributed some content and added some conversations to the Digital Is site (you should, too!)

Here is the TTT podcast from the TTT site. Thanks to Paul Allison and Susan Ettenheim for continuing to create interesting weekly discussions around topics that have value for me as a teacher.

Peace (in the discussions),

Making a Video Game, part 1

gamemaker test

I will never to be accused to being a “gamer,” which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the world of video gaming. I spent many (perhaps too many) hours of my childhood and teen age years, playing Atari and Nintendo and other game systems that I was pretty decent at. I kicked butt at Pong, and was a master at Donkey Kong, and I could discover many hidden Easter Eggs in other platform games whose names have since escaped me (Legend of Zelda seems to be one that stays with me).

These days, though, I mostly watch from afar as my own boys play on the Wii or their iPod Touch or on the computer. We limit their time in the gaming world and put the brakes on some games that we deem inappropriate, but still, it is fascinating to see how far gaming has come and to wonder about where it is heading, and to consider what value gaming might have in the classroom.

I am in the midst of writing an article about gaming in the classroom, with the emphasis on how it might be used for learning. Critical thinking, collaboration, design principles and more are all at the heart of good gaming architecture. One of the focus points of the article is the emergence of tools for users of games to create their own, and it only seemed logical that I should go through the process myself. In other words, I need to come up with a concept and try to develop and publish a simple game as if I were a student.

This post is the first bit of reflection on how that project is slowly developing.

My criteria for finding a good game creation platform was not all that scientific. I wanted something free (that could potentially translate into a no-cost project for my classroom), easy to use (this being relative, of course); and the ability to publish my game at some time in the future, if I wanted. The platform I decided upon, after some research, is GameMaker 8. I downloaded the software on Saturday morning and opened it up, with my older sons looking over my shoulder. They’re interested, too, particularly with the possibility of creating a game for their iPod (I need my Mac and a program called GameSalad – that’s for another day).

GameMaker 8 begins with a handy tutorial on making a simple game, involving moving fruit and the user collecting points by mouse clicking on the fruit (harder than it sounds). The tutorial was easy enough to follow, although the software is bit more complex than I thought it would be. I realized quickly that this is a whole new world for me, so the various elements and vocabulary that might be common in gaming systems for regular users are somewhat foreign to me. Still, the tutorial, with screenshots, was made for beginners like me. I made my simple game with bouncing fruit (and wondered, why fruit? When does fruit ever run away from us? I remember fruit being elements of some of the original video games that I played as a kid, too. Odd.)

At one point, I added a sound to the apples when they are clicked by the player – nothing fancy, just a little zing to indicate success — and my older son asked, “Why did you do that?” to which I answered, “Because I could,” and realized that I was echoing an answer often made by one of my students when they come across something cool. I kept the sound on the apple but realized I would have to try to be more thoughtful. A game that is overloaded with media and options is not very playable.

Ok, so I made my fruit game. What’s next?

What I really want to do is create a game with some sort of narrative backdrop. Again, one of the elements of my article is how “story” has infused a lot of the innovative gaming (Think of Spore, with its story of evolution, for example). I can’t get too complex because my knowledge of GameMaker is limited, and the software has limits, too (although an upgrade for $25 suggests more possibilities for game design).

So, here is my “story” of my future game: a student has woken up late, missed the bus, and must rush to get to school. Along the way, the student encounters obstacles, including a dog chasing them, nipping at their heels. The student gains speed by gathering things (what? I don’t know. Pencils, computer mice, erasers, etc.) along the way. So, this is a Maze Game, I realized, and I think it is doable for someone of my skills. I’m not all that certain the “story” will be evident, but it will at least guide me along as the developer.

Looking at the GameMaker site, I realized there are tutorials on creating maze games, so that is my next step. I’m going to spend some time with the tutorials and begin the task of making a basic maze game, with my own story concept lurking in the background. And I would probably benefit from drafting a paper version of the game, too, to help keep my focus. I also had this vision of writing a story of this running-late student (Running Late – possible name of game), with the game yet another element of the storytelling (and maybe a Google Search Story, too?) so that the story itself becomes multi-modal and engaging for the reader, who also becomes a player in the story.

Now, how would you pull all that off in the classroom?

Peace (in the sharing),

More with Cinchcast: poetry podcasting

The more I use Cinchcast, the more I like it. This morning, I was writing some poems and thought I might try to podcast them. I was considering using my phone and Cinchcast, but then I remembered a red “record now” button at the site. I figured I would give it a try with my Blue Snowball microphone and it worked like a charm.

And I can embed the audio, or download it. And my Cinch site is connected to Twitter. And it’s free.

The poems I wrote:

Dog Days
Today, I figure, is the day
our dog is one day older than
our son.
Tomorrow, it will be
seven days.
Next week? A month or maybe two.
The wet muzzle and playful eyes gaze
up at me as if to say,
your time will come, too, old man …
as he grows older right before my eyes
and then bounds off into the woods.

I’m Not That Poet
I find it particularly difficult
to be one of those
whose eyes see every … little …moment
like a time-lapse camera.
They stand in front of the larger-than-life mural
and notice the face of the one lonely
boy in the back or they pay attention to
the joyful girl with flowers on her dress.
I notice the tacks on the corners of the canvas and wonder
why the whole thing doesn’t just tumble right down to the Earth,
spilling out humanity on the ground.
I’d be ready to stuff that boy
and that girl
and all the rest of those people right into my pocket
so that I could carry them around with me
like history etched beneath our skin.
That’s the kind of poet
I am.

Peace (in the poems),

The Imaginary World of Musical Island

musical island
After Thanksgiving break, my students will be handing in their Imaginary Peaceful Land Travel Brochures. They’ve had plenty of class time to work on the project, and there are some pretty neat lands out there.  I had created my own, too, to share with them. I used Glogster and I think the future, I might have it as an option for my students, too. But I do like having them use cardstock paper for a brochure — that feels right. But with Glogster, they could add audio and video, etc.

Anyway, here is your invitation to Musical Island:

Peace (in the

Book Review: What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

I finished What Technology Wants a few weeks ago and I am still trying to sort out all that writer Kevin Kelly postulates in this interesting book which takes a step back from technology and tries to articulate a larger understanding of the world around us and the future ahead of us. What technology wants, according to Kelly, is a symbiotic relationship of sorts, with us, in that we keep developing new ways of using technology as technology advances in order to provide us with new ways of using technology.

That’s the simplified version, in my own words, and Kelly makes it clear that technology– or the technium, as he refers to the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us (p.11).” — is not alive in a living, breathing sense. But by examining trends of technological advancements, in relationship to advancements in other biological fields, Kelly argues that there is a logical and somewhat predictable pattern to technology, even though we don’t know what is coming next or how that will affect us. Like living creatures that push forward over time, the technium is also on the same course, according to Kelly. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the technium is that new devices or tools that have significant impact on our lives are hardly ever used for what they were designed for. This unknown adaptability is key to the technium.

Kelly writes, “The technium gains its immense power not only from its scale but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention, such as the alphabet, the steam pump, or electricity, can lead to further breakthrough inventions, such as books, coal mines and telephones. These advances in turn led to other breakthrough inventions, such as libraries, power generators and the internet. Each step adds further powers while retaining most of the virtues of the previous inventions (p. 38).”

The meaning behind the phrase of  “what technology wants” is that it wants to keep moving forward, according to Kelly, by providing us humans with the tools for adapting technology for our own needs. There’s a certain circular pattern to this argument, which Kelly admits to. He cites Moore’s Law (of smaller, more powerful, technology) and other data models to show how the trends of technology is marching ahead on a mathematical curve. But, Kelly notes, this whole notion of technology being on par with biological trends is complicated — this idea of technology wanting something — and he sees three forces at work:

  • The concept of preordained development — that technology is designed to always improve itself and become more advances, and more ubiquitous;
  • The influence of technology’s history — that what has come before it is what shapes the present and lays the groundwork for the future
  • The free will of us, the people — our choices in how we use the technology is critical is what technology becomes.

Kelly does not always view technology through rose-colored glasses. In fact, he profiles a number of examples of how people can and should step back from technology in their lives, if only to gain some perspective on how it shaping what we do and how we think. He uses examples such as the Amish, who resist the lure of technology for cultural reasons and yet, they are adaptable to using what suits them (as long as it is mostly “off the grid” technology).There is a whole chapter about Amish Hackers that is interesting to read, and shows how complicated the lives of the Amish can be in the modern world. And, it shows how our (my) perception of the Amish stuck in time is not even remotely accurate.

In the more controversial section of the book, Kelly also showcases The Unibomber’s manifesto as an articulate examination of the ways that technology is influencing our lives and the reasons for resisting the technium by shaping its progress ourselves. Kelly condemns the violent nature of The Unibomber, of course, but he says that some of what Ted Kacyznski wrote makes sense in terms of retaining some of our humanity as technology’s influence in our lives takes hold and expands. Kelly acknowledges, and then refutes, this view that technology “robs us of our humanity and steals our children’s future (p. 213).”

Kelly ends on a positive note, arguing that our relationship with the technium opens up new possibilities for our lives and for our ability to be creative, and expressive. “The technium expands life’s fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life’s fundamental goodness … Technology amplifies the mind’s urge towards the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite (p. 359).”

Is that a bit much? Perhaps. But Kelly has always looked ahead at the bigger picture (first with Whole Earth, and then with Wired, and now with his various books) and while I sometimes found myself shaking my head at what he was writing, I was always thinking, always pondering. What Technology Wants will sure get you to step back and reflect on where technology is and where it is going, even if the path is uncertain.

Peace (in the reflective thought),

Action, Adventure, Writing, Assessment

Graphic Stories 001
I’m about halfway through grading an adventure short story project, which means at this point I have read through about 40 short stories from sixth graders. I’ve been pretty impressed so far with the writing as many of the stories have improved drastically from the brainstorming sessions, the peer review activities and the rough draft stages that they went through to get to a final story they could be proud of.

We focused a lot on character development, points of action to move the plot forward, conflict and resolution, and establishment of setting to inform a story.  They have a rubric to guide them, and we look at examplars of adventure stories.

This is the first year I had students (two boys) ask if they could create a graphic story instead of a textual story. Now, I have graphic novels all over the room, and we use a webcomic site pretty regularly, and it seemed wrong for me to tell these young writers, no, graphic novels won’t be allowed for you as writers. Plus, I was interested in what they would. I did warn them, though, that the same rubric and standards should guide them as well as everyone else. I wanted them to know a simple comic strip would not hold muster for this project.

One student was more successful at the creation of an adventure graphic story than the other was, but I was impressed with both. Even the weaker of the stories showed character development in ways that might not have happened in a short story (this student is a struggling writer) and the graphic story opportunity gave him another way to write. It was clear that he used a character that he had already “developed” and was probably using in stories written at home, on his own. I wanted to validate that kind of writing in the classroom, too.

Other things that are jumping out at me right now with the stories I have read:

  • Some students get the idea of a “kicker” or twist at the end of a short story. This requires real critical thinking skills, and not all sixth graders are there yet. One story — The Homework Machine — is about a group of kids trying to steal this Homework Machine, only to find out at the very end that it GIVES homework, not DOES homework. That was a nice Twilight Zone twist.
  • Technology has crept into many of the stories. One story is all about a brainiac young kid nicknamed Intel, who uses his ability to fix things and make things for this spy story. There are some vivid descriptions of cool tech toys, like a version of James Bond for kids.
  • A couple of students have attempted stories that include time shifts — pushing the reader back and forth in time as the narrative slowly unfolds. This is not easy to do and doesn’t always work. But just planning that kind of story out requires deep thinking. What foreshadowing do you use?
  • A few stories move from one narrator to another, bouncing back and forth between what we assume are the protagonist and the antagonist, only to discover that our assumptions are wrong. Again, it’s hard to pull this off. One story, about a spy looking for a gadget that turns out to be a mechanical spider which can clone itself, unfolded perfectly, so we felt sympathy for what we think is the antagonist, and then the story turns itself around.

Some trends that I am seeing that I need to work on with them:

  • In some stories, the narrative point of view suddenly shifts. For example, the writer sets up a character that we see in Third Person and then midway through the story, the words “I” and “we” are inserted and now we are in First Person. I suspect this comes from starting a story one day and then working on it another day.
  • The formatting of dialogue continues to be a struggle for some students. We worked on this a lot in class — with writing prompts, reading examples and looking to novels. I pushed hard because I know they have not been taught this much in the past, and their urge is to write a short story as OneSingleParagraph.
  • Resolving a story is so much more difficult than setting a story into motion. Even with graphic organizers and work on plotting out the plot, you can tell just by reading which students got lost halfway through their story and struggled with how to end it. Even us adults have this problem — an idea sparks, flow and then sputters.

I’m off to read another 40 stories.

Peace (in the reflections of assessment),


Lead Mines, Canals and Crashes: Digging into Local History

Soho History (2)
I’ve written before about my co-teacher, and here is another example of how his ideas and my ideas play off each other so nicely. We’re reading Regarding the Fountain by Kate Klise with our co-taught class right now. The plot has to do with a fifth grade class doing research on the local history of their town, and uncovering a plot of fishy intrigue.

Bob, my co-teacher, thought we should do some research on our own town and then let the kids build a timeline of sorts of local historical episodes. Of course! So, I dug around the town’s website for some information, and Bob found a book that was published in the 1970’s by the town’s Historical Commission. We cobbled together a small packet of information, created a timeline that was missing either dates or information, and then had then work in teams to fill in the timeline. From there, they had to then create a placemat of the history of the town, organized in any way they wanted.
Soho History
Not only were the kids interested in the history of the community, they were fully engaged in all steps of the project, which took about thirty minutes. It was just one of the lessons that comes together collaboratively, and sparks something in the students that is just wonderful to watch. They were learning about history, using information reading for a realistic goal, creating timelines of information and collaborating together. That’s a nice bit of learning going on.  Not every lesson is like that, that’s for sure. But this one was.

Here are few things they didn’t know about their town but now do:

  • The town became a town because of a Lead Mine operation;
  • The New Haven-Northampton Canal ran right through the town, and when that shut down, the railroad followed. Now that is shut down, and the hope is for a bike trail (which is controversial in the town);
  • Sen. Ted Kennedy was once hurt in a plane crash (and the pilot died) in some fields not too far from the school;
  • The movie “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (with Richard Burton) shot some scenes in a local restaurant in town;
  • An adjacent city tried to annex the town in the 1960s but failed when the town used its political might to fend off the plot (which led to cheers from the students when we talked about it).

Peace (in the discovery),

Lend Me Your Ear(mark): NWP in Trouble Again

When I think of “earmarks,” I think of fluff — of bridges to nowhere and multimillion dollar research centers that have absurd missions, of things that don’t necessarily impact my life. When first started to hear about the push to end earmarks, I figured: I can live with that. It might mean one less terminal, or one less mile of bike trails, or one less repaved roadway, but I can live with it in this age of austerity.

I should know better, of course, being the old newspaper reporter and political junkie that I was. I’m a beneficiary of earmarks in a way that I never really thought about.

It turns out that my National Writing Project, as well as number of other important educational programs (RIFF, etc.) are also earmarks in the federal budget. Which means that the vote on Monday in the United States Senate on a proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to completely eliminate earmarks for this current budget year, and the next few years, could completely financially dismantle the National Writing Project, which relies heavily on federal funding to provide crucial and important professional development for tens of thousands of teachers, and teacher-leaders, in the country across all grade levels.

So, I’ve been on the phone, calling my senators (Kerry and Brown) to urge them to reject the Coburn Amendment, and contacting fellow Western Massachusetts Writing Project folks, urging them to do the same. And you, too, please, if you are in the NWP network or have benefitted from NWP or if you care about education. Please pick up the phone and show your support.

Here is an open letter from NWP Exective Director Sharon Washington:
NWP Letter to Senators
Peace (in the push),

More from National Writing Project

I tried to take some videos of the various elements of the General Assembly presentations at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting. The result: my hand would not always remain steady. So, these are a bit jumpy and the sound is just OK, not great. I am sure (hopeful?) that NWP will eventually have good videos of these available.

For now, though:

The incoming president of NCTE — Yvonne Siu-Runyan — gave a powerful welcome to the 1,000 plus NWP teachers in the room:

NWP Executive Director Sharon Washington gave insights into the busy days of a teacher:

And Donalyn Miller gave a passionate speech about being a writer:

Peace (in the jumpy sharing),