Pre(z)enting: Collected Days in a Haiku

I was taken back by the beauty and power of the various Days in a Haiku that came my way from various directions. I used this blog space, and Twitter, and our iAnthology network to ask folks to reflect on their days in the form of a haiku.

So, here, I share with you. I hope you are impressed as I was.

Peace (in the days),

Teacher Challenge: Avatars and Us

The most recent Teacher Challenge challenge is to think about Avatars, and how we visually represent ourselves and our identities in the online world. It got me thinking a bit about the various avatars that I have used since I began blogging and networking.

The first avatar I ever used was my old dog, Bella. I figured that since my nickname was dogtrax, having a dog as my avatar made sense. And she was a beautiful dog, so I enjoyed seeing her image on my posts. I think, at the time, I was erecting some protective walls around identity, and my dog didn’t reveal a thing about me, really.

Later, I shifted to an avatar image that I have of me playing guitar with my old band, The Sofa Kings. It’s a picture from when we went into the recording studio. I liked how it captured my love of music and my identity of being in a rock and roll band.

These days, I am more apt to use a drawing I made myself in MS Paint. It’s pretty basic, but it seems comfortable to me. I got tired of seeing myself in an image as my avatar. The self-portrait is not really me (maybe an older version of me, with more hair) but I like that I drew it myself, with my own hands (mouse) and I see it and think, yep, that’s me.

I uploaded a bunch of my various avatars to see how the embedded gallery will work.

In general, I guess folks have to think about hwy they want to use an avatar: is it for flash, for fun, for privacy or for something else. There are certainly tons of avatar makers out there now, and it is always good to take a step back and consider how it is that we represent ourselves to the world. And when we talk to our students, and work with our students with avatars, it’s a good way to get into visual literacy: what does this picture say to the world?

And the ease in which we can make the switch of our visual representation means we can easily shed and recreate our online visual identities with a click of a button and swipe of a mouse.

Peace (in the avatar),

PS — Later, it occurred to me that I didn’t mention the use of Voki and other animated avatars. I have tried them and found them … too disjointed and too odd. Maybe it’s that whole robotic human thing. And the eyeballs following my mouse just makes me unsettled. I know plenty of folks like Voki. Not me. I prefer a static avatar that doesn’t talk to me.

Puppet Shows: Downloading, Editing, Uploading, Streaming

puppets show 2011
On Thursday, we filmed all of our puppet shows (except for one, which is being done by two sisters in two different classes). The snow days and ice delays meant that we will not be performing the plays lives in front of an audience this year. That was a difficult decision I had to make, but we are far behind in our curriculum and I need to be done with puppetry and script writing and collaborative work around puppets.

Our snow day yesterday gave me a chance to take the raw videos and get them ready for posting to our Puppet Website. It takes a long time to deal with video, which is something I already knew but … phew. When you are dealing with more than 20 puppet shows, each of which has to be formatted for the web as its own video — it’s time-consuming.

First, I had to stream the raw footage off the video camera. From past experiences, I find it easier to do each show individually (as opposed to downloading the entire class). This allows me to do some initial labeling and organizing (organization is the key to this project).

I used my PC but I would like to shift to my Mac. The problem is that the Mac I have for the classroom does not have a Firewire jack (what is up with that? I thought that was pretty much standard these days) and the last thing I need is another hurdle of technology. So, I turned to my PC laptop and used Moviemaker for the streaming to my computer. Since the initial video is downloaded as high quality, it takes up a lot of space. I use a portable hard drive for this work, since my PC is sort of old and has space limitation.

This means that I have to keep a watchful eye on the streaming, stopping after each play. My 6 year old son had a good time, watching the plays on the little video screen, laughing at the puppets and the antics.

Second, I used MovieMaker to add a title and do some adjusting of the volume — trying to give a boost here and there to the plays where kids did not quite perform as loud as they should have, even though we talked and talked about the use of voice for performance. The problem is that our puppet theater — hand carved by students about 10 years ago — is wood and their voices bounced back to them, giving the impression of loudness.

Third, I had to make each show into a video with Moviemaker. I use a relatively low quality output, so that they are web-ready for online viewing. (I set it at the Video for Local Playback/2.1 Mbps). I would go lower but I worry about the quality. This takes some time because each video needs to get created individually and you can only run at a time. I’d go off to do other things, and see how things were faring from time to time.

Finally, once all the videos are made, I shift to Vimeo, where I host all of my videos and begin the process of uploading. I used the desktop Vimeo uploader but it crashed on me towards the start of the process and I could not get it working right. So, I did it manually at the Vimeo site, which takes more time. Once the videos were up, I sorted them into folders according to my four ELA classes, adjusted the sharing embedding code, and chose thumbnails for each video.

I’m not done yet! Now, I need to replace all of last year’s puppet shows at our website with this year’s puppet shows, and the other day, a friend pointed out that Vimeo is not playing so nice with WordPress (or vice versa), and the videos are spilling out over the sides of the WordPress post space. My next step is to figure that out, and if it doesn’t work, create another web space for the puppet shows.

Early next week, I will share out some of the puppet play videos. I need to do some grading on the projects, too. At this point, though, I have seen all of the plays enough times, in enough formats, to know them pretty well.

Oh, and in between all of that video work, I went sledding, helped to shovel the driveway, read books and more books to my son, got myself and my sons a haircut, and more. I was not glued to my screen on a winter day, but it did capture a fair share of my attention from time to time. I do it because I know my students and their families will appreciate it.

Peace (in the puppets),

Creating a Cross-Grade Writing Rubric

Writing Rubric
ELA Conventions Rubric
Our school is in the midst of a two year Literacy Initiative, which has led to such things as a Literacy Conference hosted at our school last year and a move into the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment and many conversations about reading and writing and literacy (although not so much around New Literacies).

Last year, as we shifted into a Standard-based Reporting System (no more grades), I realized that I needed a reading response rubric that would align with that new system and allow me to have conversations about what we expect from our writers when they are responding to literature. The principal agreed to pay for enlarging the rubric into a huge poster for all of our sixth grade classrooms, and now that is a common tool we all use. Then, our associate superintendent walked through the room earlier this year, commented on the rubric, and asked that our principal provide copies for other schools and also for other classrooms.

Now, that reading response rubric hangs in most of the grades three through six classrooms in our school. I can’t say if it is helping or hindering other teachers, though. I am hopeful that it will lead to more exposure to open response, critical thinking questions. All of our test score data shows an across-the-board weakness in open response from our students, in math as well as ELA.

But what about writing? What about personal narratives, short stories and other forms of longer composition that does not fall under the heading of reading response?

Last week, we began the first steps towards creating a similar rubric for writing and composition for grades three through six. We made pretty decent headway, I think, but it is more difficult than it seems to create a document flexible enough to be useful for a third grader as well as a sixth graders, without being so general that it means nothing.

We decided to break off the ELA Conventions as its own rubric and then, with the Writing/Composition Rubric, we focused in on some specific areas:

  • Clarity
  • Explanations
  • Details
  • Development of ideas
  • (to be added) rich vocabulary

One teacher had a great suggestion with this draft that a small group of us presented: create a third column on the rubric for grade-specific skills. This would allow for us all to have some common language around literacy, but still allow that flexibility for what is expected in each grade — building skills as the students move upward through the school.

We’ll also be reformatting these rubrics with more bullet points, as opposed to sentences, so that the rubric makes more sense visually for students. Eventually, each classroom will have three large rubric posters: reading response, writing/composition, and conventions.

Since I was given the charge of creating the draft of the rubric (which I am sharing here), I purposely used the word “composition” instead of writing in the rubric, and I explained to my colleagues that this word better covers all elements of literacy — use of digital tools to create work as well as composing an essay. I noted, too, that the Common Core standards are heavy on use of media for learning and creating and so I hoped that word “composition” would be flexible enough. No one argued that point.

Peace (in the rubric),

Books Reviews: The Red Pyramid and The Tiger Rising

The Red Pyramid

One of these books — The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan — I read aloud to my six year old and the other — The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo — I read as part of our independent reading unit in the classroom (Yeah, I read with my students and talk through what I am thinking as I read).

Boy, I wanted to like The Red Pyramid more than I did.  I dove in, all ready. The book never really delivered, which was hugely disappointing (particularly since the thing is more than 500 pages long). It occurs to me that Rick Riordan may have taken on one too many writing tasks in the past two years. Along with his book, which is the first in his Kane Chronicles, he launched an offshoot series of The Lightning Thief with the book The Lost Hero and has contributed to the 39 Clues series.

It’s not all bad. The Red Pyramid tells the tale of two children who are blood descendants of Egyptian Pharaohs, and who must save the world from destruction by using new-found magical powers, and allegiances to an array of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Like his use of Greek Mythology in The Lightning Thief, Riordan grounds the story is Egyptian Mythology. But it seems to much. There are more names to follow than you can imagine. I kept hoping Riordan provided a glossary at the back of the book (which would have been quite helpful).

There are sure glimmers of a good story here, as the kids (bi-racial siblings who spent their childhoods apart and drawn into adventure in the aftermath of their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance) tell the story in alternating chapters in their own voices.

Unfortunately, all to often, the story got bogged down. We wanted more excitement! More adventure! More, eh, clarity of story! Even so, my son and I are looking towards the next installment of the Kane Chronicles, which comes out in May. There was enough here to make it worth a possible dive back into the Kane kids and the world of Ancient Egyptian magic.

Meanwhile, I just finished a short, but beautiful book by Kate DiCamillo entitled The Tiger Rising. DiCamillo is a wondrous writer, and if you read The Tale of the Despereaux (the book, not the movie) or The Magician’s Elephant or any of her other books, you know she has a talent of weaving stories together.

Here, she brings us into the world of Rob, an adolescent now living in a run-down motel in Florida with his father. Rob’s whose mom died (is this a theme or what?) and his father refuses to grieve, or let Rob grieve. So all of his sadness and emotions are locked down tight (in a “suitcase” that Rob imagines he drags around with him). Into this world comes spunky and thoughtful Sistine, a girl of Rob’s age who has her own problems: her father cheated on her mom and they have come to live in Florida, too. Like Rob, Sistine is completely out of place.

The tiger is an animal they find caged up in the woods. It’s the property of the owner of the motel, where Rob’s dad works in a low-paying job, and Sistine is determined to free the tiger, much to Rob’s initial dismay. They eventually do free the animal, only to have Rob’s father shoot the tiger and kill it. That tragedy finally opens the door for Rob and his father to grieve over their own loss of mother and wife.

This is not necessarily a tidy book (and not as strong as The Tale of the Despereaux either), but that untidiness is a good thing to me, as a reader. Not everything gets put in its place by the end. The story risks the artifice of a “lesson learned” as opposed to a “story told” and I feel that DiCamillo found a certain balance.  Sistine still feels abandoned by her father. Rob still is an outcast. But Rob and his father do finally find each other, and Rob has found a true connection with a new friend, Sistine. The language here in The Tiger Rising is lovely and the pacing, just perfect.

I quickly passed this book on to a student, who has since passed it on to her sister.

Peace (in the books),

Considering the ‘Academically Adrift’

A newspaper headline caught my eye this morning, and had me searching around for information about this book, Academically Adrift, which seems to indicate that for many students, the University is not all that rigorous nor is it enhancing their learning. I don’t confess to know all the ins and outs of the study, and the newspaper article did note that some had called some of the methods of the data collection into question.

But (according to an article in Inside Higher Ed) the study finds that:

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge — while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”

The result?

According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college. — from the book blurb.

So, what are we to make of this?

It seems to me that critical thinking and pushing students to solve problems, as opposed to rote learning, is one way to increase the rigor of our academic environments. I suppose we, in the public school field, have to wonder if we are doing what we need to do to prepare our students for the University. Is too much of the first part of the college experience just bringing students up to a certain standard?

I think the data also indicates that our push for social engagement (online or not) takes away from academic engagement, and is that good or bad? I remember many benefits from the social elements of college (connections that are still strong) but I surely rushed through some assignments or did not go as deep as I should have in order to have time for the non-academics.

Lots of questions emerge from this kind of study, I think, particularly as we think about how we are strengthening our educational system from top to bottom, and everywhere else. I often feel as if there are too few conversations between professors in the University systems and teachers in the high schools, although the National Writing Project has consistently been a place where I HAVE heard those conversations taking place.

Peace (in the successful student),

Teacher Challenge: All About Me is really All About You

This blogging  activity, as part of the Edublog Teacher Challenge, is to consider the use of “Pages” as opposed to “posts” on a blog. Essentially, a page is a static site (sort of like a common webpage) while a post shows up as the homepage, in reverse chronological order. Specifically, we are being asked to examine our All About Me pages and think about the message it sends, and maybe do a little spring cleaning.

I did a similar preview a few years ago, too, and although today I made some quick tweaks to the language there (I used to moderate every single comment and now I have it set differently, so returning users don’t need to be in my moderation bin), it is still a pretty inviting message,  I think. My All About Me page is actually All Ab0ut You (the reader).

You can view my All About Me Page here.

I’ve avoided using too many pages because I feel like it clutters up the blog homepage site. The only other pages that I used to use was for an ongoing short story called Mac’s Music Shack (and is really The Canterbury Tales, retold through music themes), and I was working to embed video introductions to each chapters and podcasting the chapters. (You can tell it’s a bit dated because I was using Google Video).  It was an experiment around using audio and video and writing, and the static quality of the Page made sense to me at the time. The page is still there, if you are curious, but it remains a Page Under Construction and is not currently linked on the homepage.

You can view Mac’s Music Shack here.

Peace (in the reflecting),

Book Review: Sergio Aragones’ Mad View of the World

Image of MAD's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Works

Anybody who says Mad Magazine was for just kids didn’t ever read it.  Or didn’t read it carefully. I was reminded of this recently when I bought a book that featured five decades of the drawings and cartoon work of Sergio Aragones, who is the master of creating biting, funny critiques of all sorts of topics with pictures but very few words. (The book is MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Work). In fact, you have to read his work on a whole other level than you might expect, interpreting every nuance of every space of his comics.

Sergio has called his brand of art “pantomime humor” and in a short interview that introduces this collection, he talks about how this style came about partly because he immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and struggled with language. He decided that his art would not be fixed in an oral language tradition, but in the realm of visual literacy. His “outsider” status also allowed him to fix a critical eye on American culture, which informed much of his wacky insights.

And Mad Magazine was a true home for Sergio and his offbeat vision of the world, allowing him freedom to explore not only fun topics (video games, cell phones, mothers, etc.) but also some pretty serious social topics, too. (Later, he also created the Groo graphic novel series, which my older son just loves.) I went through and highlighted just a few topics in this hardbound collection that might surprise the casual reader:

  • Illegal Immigration
  • Racism
  • Gun Control
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Terrorism
  • Education
  • Double-speaking rhetoric
  • Airport Security
  • Summer Camps

OK, so that last one isn’t quite in the league as the others, but still, Aragones skewers everything and everyone and comes across as pretty balances in his humorous looks at our lives.

One of the things that I loved about his work with Mad Magazine, too, is that he was charged with doing all of the little cartoon drawings in the margins of the pages. These are tiny masterpieces of art, really, and often ignored. Luckily, in this collection, he has replicated dozens of these margin artworks onto a poster. You realize quickly that literacy is not just words, not just written language, but also art. One small image by Sergio Aragones packs a lot of punch.

Is this book appropriate for the classroom? Eh, no. Not at all. Too much nudity and too much content that might offend most sensibilities. But you could pick and choose from this collection, I suppose, and talk about telling a story with no words. Aragones is a master at that (did I say that already?)

Peace (in the toons),

Book Review:The Best Technology Writing 2010

Some people have pilgrimages that they go to every year — some place in the world that strikes their fancy or addresses some need they have for the year. Me? I have a few book series that I look forward to each December into January of each year, and one of my anticipated series has become The Best Technology Writing series put out by Yale University Press. This year, the editor is Julian Dibbell and the collection, as usual, is very strong and interesting and certainly food for much thought. What I like, too, is that this is not a cheerleading manifesto or love letter to technology. It’s an exploration of the good and the bad and the unknown as technology infuses all of our lives.

Here are some of the articles collected in this book:

  • Evan Ratliff writes an interesting piece (from Wired) about slipping away from the grid and trying to hide in an experimental piece done with the magazine. His task was to remain hidden from the prying eyes of technology (credit cards, electronic records, etc/) but still live a sort of life for an extended period of time. The article, “Vanish,” brings us both Ratliff’s reflections while “on the run” while also giving us his rich, reflective perspectives of how connected to the electronic world we really are. He really has to work to stay hidden. Meanwhile, the article also keeps track of the many Wired readers who were trying to track him down through crowdsourcing and databases and GPS systems, and how they eventually did find him.
  • Lawrence Weschler profiles the artist David Hockney and his passion for creating art on his iPhone. The article, from The New York Times Review of Books, goes into the concepts of artistry changing in this modern age, and how mobile devices can both limit and expand what we consider art, and what we consider art distribution.
  • “Handwriting is History” by Anne Trubek, from Miller-McCune, was a fascinating look at the history of handwriting and how technology is changing those perceptions of how we write with our hands, scribbling on paper. I am one of those people whose mind is more connected to my keyboard because my fingers keep up better than when I am trying to write with pen and paper. Trubek explores this idea of the mind connected to how we write.
  • David Carr’s column from The New York Times entitled “The Rise and Fall of Media” is not quite a postmortem on newspapers and magazines, but close. Or least, newspapers and magazines as we have traditionally known them. Carr ponders what is happening to media these days and wonders where it is going in this Age of Disruption.
  • The book ends with a Tweet by astronaut Michael James Massimino as he orbits the planet. “From orbit: Listening to Sting on my ipod watching the world go by — literally.”

And that is just a small bit of what is in this book. If you have an interest in technology in the bigger picture — the wide angle lens, so to speak — then I would recommend this book collection.

Peace (in the books),

Hello Old Friend: Day in A Sentence/Haiku-

dayinsentenceiconIt’s been a long time since I have had my old friend, Day in a Sentence, back at my site for hosting. Bonnie has been overseeing the collaborative writing feature, and doing a great job inviting so many other bloggers to both host and to add their own reflective thoughts to the mix each week.

And now, I get it back for this week. But I can’t do it alone. I need you. Please consider joining this week’s Day in a Sentence, with the theme of HAIKU. That’s right: A Day in a Haiku. Now, if you know anything about my site, you know I am no stickler for rules. So, while the traditional Haiku format is 5/7/5 and all about nature, you go on ahead and do it the way that feels right to you.

Here are mine (I wrote two, which I will explain in a minute). The first is about puppet plays that have been in progress for a bit too long and still are works in progress, even though they will be performing them this week for younger students:

Our classroom’s a mess.
All this week, they’ll try their best
Behind (the) puppet stage

And I had another haiku reflection, more somber, as one of the fathers of a child on my son’s basketball team passed away suddenly this past week in what I can only say is a strange accident while he was on vacation. The team won a nail-biter game yesterday, with the son playing as way to temporarily escape his grief and team rallying around him. I am the team scorekeeper, and this dad and I had a warm conversation just last weekend about the game and about his son. That conversation lingers with me.

The last time we spoke,
we chatted about the stats
and praised his son’s game.

You can add your Day in a Haiku by using the comment link right at this post. They will go into my moderation bin.  I’ll be collecting all of the haikus and releasing them into the world together in some form sometime next weekend. If you are a returning Day-er, it will be great to see your words again. If you are new, then welcome.

Peace (in three lines),