Search Stories and Story Writing

My students are going to be handing in an adventure short story project today that they have been working on for about two weeks. We began with a lot of brainstorming around characters, and setting, and plot development. We’ve worked on proofreading and editing and writing dialogue in the correct format (something that never seems to have been taught in other grades, it seems to me).

Today, after they go through a self-assessment rubric, I am going to take them one step further with their characters. We’re going to be using Google Search Stories as a way to bring their characters to life a bit.

Their task: create a Search Story from the view of your main character. What would they be searching for that will tell the basic framework of the story? This has as much to do with inference (which is a theme we are working on) as it does with narrowing down a story to some basic elements. Ideally, after watching one of the Search Stories, a viewer should have some sense of the story, even if they haven’t read it. And if they have read the story, the Search Story should complement that experience.

Is that asking too much of 11 year olds?

I don’t think so, although last year when we did a Search Story project, I could clearly delineate those students whose critical thinking skills were finely developed and those who have not yet taken that step forward. The “missing elements” of the Search Story — what you leave out — is the key.

Here’s my sample from a story that I have shared with my students. The story — called The Machine — is about a brother and sister who have inadvertently constructed a robot that is now on a rampage around town, and the two siblings have to stop it by finding missing engineering plans that will tell them how to turn the robot off. Both get hurt in the process. But they are successful.

And here are the Search Stories from last year. These are not centered on a story project. They just had to create a Search Story that told a tale about something.

Peace (in the search),

PS — I should note that I make a big deal out of the fact that this is a Google site, designed to get people to use Google for search, and that Google makes money out of every search query. I want to use the tool — it’s ease of use makes it manageable in one class period — but I also want my students to know what they are using. We all use my classroom YouTube account, by the way.

The NWP(eeee) Dance Party(eeee) Theme Song

This morning, as I was planning out my NWP Makes! Session a bit more for next Saturday at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, it dawned on me that a dance party stopmotion movie is what my group should create during our hour long working time (and then, they will document what we have done with technical writing). They’ll be using clay and wikistix to create little people.

And, so, I thought: I need to write a song for the video. A song about an NWP Dance Party. So, I composed it (using some music software) and wrote it and recorded it this morning, and have it now all set to go for the session.

Wanna hear it?

NWP Dance Party Theme Song

And here are the lyrics:

Put down your pens
Put down your papers
Put down your laptop
‘Cause you’ll get to it later

You’ve got to move-move
You’ve got to shake it – shake it
You’ve got to bend it back
An don’t even try to fake it

NWP Dance Party!

Ten thousand words
Can say the same thing
But this is like a language
that can make your heart sing

Come on the dance floor
And give it a little shake
Who knows where it’ll go
or what you can make

NWP Dance Party!

Peace (in the boogie),

My Edublog Award Nominations

Each year, Edublogs (which I use for personal and school blogs) hosts its annual Edublog Awards. I know some folks frown on an awards idea for bloggers and it can often seem like shouting in an echo chamber (we all nominate the popular bloggers, who get more popular, etc.). But I like that it makes me stop for a stretch and reflect on those folks whom I read and learn from on a regular basis.

So, with a few disclaimers down below, here are my nominations. I did not do every single category. I only did nominations in the categories that I felt strongly about:

Best individual blog: Bud the Teacher

I find Bud’s reflections and passion for learning and technology to be as strong today as it was when I first found him online. Meeting him in person at various functions over the years has only cemented my view of Bud as someone to watch and follow, and think about. Bud often moves beyond the tool and into the learning of technology, and he is not a bandwagon jumper — he sees the technology and possibilities, and pitfalls, with clear eyes.

Best individual tweeter:!/PaulWHankins

I’m fairly new to Paul’s circle of friends, I guess, but reading him on Twitter is like listening into a very interesting conversation. He clearly loves learning, he is passionate about books, and he loves writing (for himself and his students)  — and those three facets of his personality seem to come together in interesting ways with Paul’s tweets.

Best group blog: NWP Walkabout:

A disclaimer: I contribute to this blog every now and then. It’s a home for National Writing Project folks to file reflections about various conferences, events and projects that they are involved in. The collective sharing out of what has been learned, and what is being learned, is always engaging.

Best new blog: Popgun Chaos

This blog is hard to explain, since it is not about teaching; it’s about culture, and particularly the comic book/alternative music culture. The posts are often very funny and engaging, and the topics are (for me) so off-center to what I am used to reading that I look forward to what the topic is when it arrives in my RSS. It may not be a blog for everyone, but I hope it finds an audience. Plus, how can you not love that name?

Best class blog:

Here’s another disclaimer: I work with Gail, the kindergarten teacher behind this blog, and she nominated me for an award this year. So, nominating her seems like payback, but it’s not. I would have tried to give her class the spotlight anyway because her students are wonderful and their work in various modes of composition (skyping, voicethread, photography, and more) is such a rich window into the world of early childhood education.

Best resource sharing blog — Larry Ferlazzo

I feel like I nominate Larry every year and never regret it. If you don’t have Larry Ferlazzo in your sights, you are missing some great resources, particularly around parent involvement and English Language Learners.

Most influential blog post: Still Learning How To Be A Digital Writer (Troy Hicks)

Another disclaimer (darn it): My request to Troy Hicks that he talk about the things that did not go so great when he was leading online discussions of his book (The Digital Writing Workshop) led to this post, which I just loved. He made visible both the possibilities of technology, and the roadblocks that can come. And just as important, for me, he reflected on both of those ideas in his calm, reassuring tone of voice of this blog.

Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion: #speakloudly!/search/%23SpeakLoudly

Remember Paul from my Twitter recommendation? He kept this hashtag alive and well during Banned Book Month, inviting people to really ponder our views towards suppressing literature that don’t meet the guidelines of so-called society.

Best teacher blog: Two Writing Teachers

Ruth and Stacey are so great as reflective teachers, offering a nice balance between suggestions for writing activities and thoughtful analysis of classroom practice, complete with student samples.

Best librarian / library blog: A Year of Reading —

Franki and Mary Lee co-write this blog, really focusing in on literacy in the library at the elementary level. I loved the series of posts this summer about the ecology and physical lay-out of the library, and what that kind of thoughtful decision does to the learning environment.

Best school administrator blog – Practical Theory: Chris Lehamann —

If you are in education, you should be paying attention to Chris. Enough said, I think.

Best educational tech support blog – Scott Sibberson –

Scott is husband to Franki, of A Year of Reading, and his views from the technical support room, and his ideas of supporting classroom instruction, are a great resource to turn to.

Best educational podcast: Teachers Teaching Teachers –

Yet another disclaimer: I’ve been a guest on TTT, which is a weekly webcast turned podcast that focuses on so many topics, including student writing in social spaces, but this past year’s involvement in the oil spill has been a great motivator for me to ramp up my work around environmental education with my students.

Lifetime achievement: Bud the Teacher –

Sorry, Bud. You’re not old. You’ve just been around for a few years longer than most of us and I appreciate the time you have spent sharing with us readers.

Peace (in the sharing),

Imaginary Extinct Creatures

Wikistix Creature Collection
The parent-teacher organization at our school is very active and very supportive of the work of teachers. This comes through on many levels. One way that the PTO raises money for its work is with an annual Apple Pie Craft Fair, and each classroom is encouraged to do a small craft with their classes for “sale” at the fair. It’s really about getting our students’ parents to come to the fair and buy stuff to support the school.

Honestly, I don’t look forward to the craft fair project, and it may be because I just haven’t ever found a project that can be done in a short amount of time with connections to learning in an engaging manner for something that can be sold (mostly, to their own parents). Also, it has to inexpensive, since the PTO will only reimburse us for a nominal amount for supplies.

I’ve done:

  • rainsticks
  • calendars
  • stick figure movies
  • stained glass artwork

This year, I decided to get WikiStix and let them create imaginary creatures that have gone extinct. They liked that, and with feathers and googly eyes and glitter glue, the students had a fine creative time. Not much learning, but fun.

When I was making my own sample for them (my old friend, B Sharp, the lost note), I turned on my time-lapse stopmotion software and captured myself in the act of creation. Sort of funny to see.

Peace (in the strange things),

Celebrating Veterans with 25-word-stories

vets day 25wordstories 1

vets day 25wordstories 2

vets day 25wordstories  3
As some of you know, I have been tinkering with 25 word stories on Twitter as a way to narrow storytelling down to its bare essentials. You have to leave more out than you put in. Yesterday, on Veteran’s Day, I got inspired to write a bunch of 25 word stories to honor the stories about veterans.

Peace (in the writing),

My Thoughts on Veteran’s Day

veterans day 016

(photo courtesy of Gail Poulin)

Yesterday, at our school, we held a Veteran’s Day Assembly in which our school community honored Ed Boruki, a veteran of Pearl Harbor and World War II and still driving and walking around at the age of 90. One of our teachers, a veteran himself who organizes the event each year, came up with the wonderful idea of dedicating our flagpole to Mr. Boruki.

There were about three dozen veterans from the town there, most of whom were related to students at our school. They all introduced themselves to our school, one at a time.  It’s powerful to hear their voices, of where they served and in which branch of the military.  Our music teacher has written original songs for the whole school to sing called “You are the Heroes” and “We Will Remember” and there was a special luncheon for the visitors. I think our school does Veteran’s Day right.

Our staff has just three veterans, as far as I know, and I happen to be one of them. I was an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard for much of my early adulthood. So, I was asked to give a speech about what Veteran’s Day means to me.

I spent a lot of time with it, actually, trying to capture my thoughts about thanking veterans for their time served and some of my own experience in the military. I had it all printed out, and ready to go.

But we held the assembly outside on a crisp fall day. The wind was cranking, the volume on the PA system was low and the hundreds of students standing there could not be expected to pay close attention for long. So, I abandoned my script and ad-libbed the main parts of what I wanted to say. It went fine, and it was much shorter than I had originally planned as a result.

But I did record the original version as part of my writing revision process. I added some music in to it and figured I would share it out today, in honor of Veteran’s Day 2010.

Listen to the speech

Peace (in the sharing),

PS — See the blog post of my colleague, Gail Poulin, for some pictures and more information about the event.

326 Words in 9 Minutes: Defeating Dr. Wicked

I had a friend turn me on to this odd site called Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die, which gives you a time period to write and then prods you forward with your targeted word count with electric cattle prods, zapping hand buzzers … well, not quite. But the site does use colored backgrounds to let you know you are staring at the screen a bit too long, and then begins to remove your words one at a time until you start typing again. At least, that’s what it did in the category that I chose — you can be more forgiving on yourself, or more harsh, too.

(There is a desktop version of this, which costs a requested donation of 10 bucks, and a modified online version that is free. I did the free online version. Some folks are using this as part of the National Novel Writing Month projects to spur them on.)

This could be a killer for some writers who stress over every word but not for me, who writes quick (too quick?) and is happy to plow forward in the draft stage. I actually found it was a neat experience to know I better get things going. I had to move my story forward, and fast, or face the wrath of Dr. Wicked, and I didn’t even know what I was going to write when I started at the site.

I wrote the first line that came to mind because I was writing early in the morning and sleep was not far away  — By night, she was wide awake .. — and began.) The story unfolded in literally the ten minutes I had on the clock as I imagined the scene, this character and a possible backstory. I threw the cat into the mix for good luck.

So, I kind of liked the experience. The site let me know that I wrote 326 words in 9 minutes, so I beat the clock (10 minute limit) and exceeded my goal (300 words). Take that, Dr. Wicked!

My Story:

By night, she was wide awake, knowing that her anxiety would not let her sleep. Her day tumbled over her, weaving some strange magic. Her cat purred at her feet. She gently moved, not wanting to disrupt him, too, with her wakefulness. He barely stirred. She felt a bit of resentment now, and poked him with her toe. The cat just rolled over, stretched, and fell back into canine slumber.

She pulled on her slippers. Her toes wiggled to create warmth. The stairs were dark, but she knew every step. The light was unnecessary, although it would not have awoken anyone. It was only her now. Her and the cat. Still, she kept the light off, feigning some sleep pattern that she hoped would eventually lead her back to bed.

The newspaper was folded up on the kitchen table. The headline was no longer visible. She reminded herself that she had done this on purpose. Yet, she could not resist. She took the newspaper and unfolded it out, spreading out the entire two pages on the table before her. She bent over the news, elbows on the table, and read it again. She searched for any clues to the real story behind the story. A former reporter, she knew what to look for in what wasn’t being said.

Even so, the story in the story remained a mystery. She ran her fingers over his headshot and thought how funny it was that he seemed so contained in that little square box. He looked younger than she remembered, and figured the newspaper had grabbed some old headshot of his from its files.

“Developer Disappears, Money Taken,” screamed the headline. She sighed, telling herself again that he would not likely be coming back anytime soon. Something brushed again her leg. She reached down and scooped up his cat, the one thing he had left behind.

“Sandy,” she murmured, scratching the creature below the chin,”I guess it’s just you and me now.”

— The End

Give it a try. If you dare …

Peace (in the fast pace of writing),

PS — I tried to create a podcast with Cinch of my story but Cinch is having some technical difficulties, I think. If it comes through soon, I’ll add it in.

What Steve Says … it’s a cinch!

I am following the lead of my fellow NWP friend, Steve Moore, who writes that using the site Cinch for podcasting from mobile device is one way to go, and I wanted to find something easy to use for the upcoming National Writing Project Annual Meeting.

And, well, Steve was right: Cinch is a cinch to use. I don’t have a phone with apps, but I just registered my phone number and called the Cinch Line and a minute later, what I said was on the site as a podcast.

And I can embed it:


Peace (in the voice),

Mulling over the Future of Science Fairs and Glogster

Sixty four projects spread out across one giant cafeteria, with hundreds of students milling about. It was Science Fair for sixth graders at my school yesterday, as they shared their work around using the Scientific Method with display boards, games and even a puppet show.

This is the sixth year our science teacher has done the fair, opening up the learning to the entire school, and she and I had an interesting conversation about the Science Fair and the use of Glogster. I had mentioned that some teachers are moving towards Glogster for this kind of project. We both use Glogster for projects, and she intends to use it again this year.

We went through the pros and cons of moving the Science Fair from a physical space of sharing to a virtual space. I later added some of my own ideas as I was forming this list.

The Pros:

  • In Glogster, the projects can be archived forever.
  • The projects can be easily embedded into websites.
  • A Science Fair would never technically end.
  • Multimedia (video, audio, etc.) becomes part of the presentation tool box. For example, a podcast of an explanation of the steps of the Scientific Method could be put right into the project itself.
  • The world would become the audience; not just our school and students’ families.
  • The “writing process” on the virtual poster is a bit more malleable and forgiving (you don’t have to rip the glue and papers off to make a change). Just drag and drop and update.
  • You can now “sort” projects together under similar themes and share them out as a package of glogs. So, all of the projects that deal with Laws of Motion, or food, could be pulled together.

The Cons:

  • There would be less student collaborative work with Glogster, at least for now, as only one person can work on a single glog at a time.
  • There would be less opportunity for the face-to-face meetings that the younger students have with the sixth grade “scientists” at the fair and less opportunity for the sixth graders to “talk” through their learning to a live audience.
  • The presenter would not feel as engaged in the presentation if they were standing physically next to the project.
  • Parents can’t “save” the student work in the attic (although, they could on a flash drive, I suppose, but it’s not the same thing, is it?)
  • The idea of a school-wide even would diminish, even if you set up laptops around the space. It’s still not the same, is it?

In the end, she decided that Glogster is not yet a good fit for her vision of the Science Fair, particularly since a big part of the learning is interacting with audience and answering off-the-cuff questions from the younger students. I agreed with her.

Peace (in the thinking),