March Book Madness: Septimus Heap

Here is another student project in my March Book Madness feature, which has been running all month to celebrate the reading we do in my sixth grade classroom. Here, my student reviews a book in the Septimus Heap series, called Siren, by Angie Sage. I know very little about this series, other than they have pretty cool covers. This student is an advanced reader and his glog about Siren shows good thought and reflection.

Peace (in the book),

Slice of Life: Questions He Asks

Slice of Life 2011Today is my middle son’s birthday, and he has always had a very inquisitive nature (I once wrote a poem about him as a young child asking about God). Here, in no particular order, are some of the questions he has lobbed my way in the past three days.

“What if Gaddaffi bombs us?”

Here’s a question that I wish I would not be asked, but I can’t just ignore it, either. He reads the newspaper. He has some idea of the world. I tell him that Libya does not have the capability to bomb us here, and that we are participating in the no-fly zone initiative to save lives. I tell him he is safe. I am not sure if I put him at ease, though.

“Do you believe there is life somewhere other than Earth?”

I told him that I often wonder, given the size and scope of the Universe, if there might be some form of life somewhere. I don’t imagine it will be little green men, but maybe something. He agreed, and then rattled some statistics about how many adults believe versus how many kids believe (I think he heard it on the radio).

“If I get a scholarship to  a college for sports, but it is not the college that I want, can I turn it down?”

This still a number of years down the road, I assure him. Wow. I honestly tell him that it would be hard to say no to a free ride to college, and given our finances, it would be a difficult decision. He wants to go to LSU to play basketball. We can only hope some sort of academic and/or sports scholarships are in the cards.

“What is the meaning of life?”

I am not kidding. He asked this one morning. I was caught off-guard, but rattled on about love, peace, helping others, family and inner happiness. I sounded like a greeting card, I fear, but what could I say? That I have it figured out? I was honest, in that I don’t have it figured out.

I love this kid. He’s a fifth grader with a mind wide open.

Peace (in the questions),

March Book Madness: I Am Arachne

Click to enlargeLast year, at our school, we had the wonderful illustrator and writer Mordicai Gerstein come in and work with kids around creating picture books. While he was here, he donated a few books for the library, and then the librarian in turn passed one of them along to me. It is called I Am Arachne, and Gerstein is the illustrator (and the writer is Elizabeth Spires). As part of my March Book Madness, I thought I would share some impressions of this collection of short stories inspired by Greek and Roman myths.

Told entirely in first person narrative, the stories here are a retelling of very famous myths and some not-so-famous myths. I did like that Spires began with the story of Arachne and Athena, and then used her very poetic touches to have Arachne begin to spin the stories for us. Spires must have some background as a poet because there are lovely sentences and passages here that really capture the characters in these tales. Long after you read the stories, you might still hear the voices of the narrators.

The 15 stories are short, but move along at a brisk pace, and this book would be a nice companion for a unit around Greek or Roman mythology (which is why the librarian passed it along to me.). Gerstein’s sketch illustrations are a nice complement to the stories, too. They are by nature, whimsical, and capture the mood of the stories.

Peace (in the myths),

Slice of Life: Cool is the Way it Plays

Slice of Life 2011Last night, my wife and I went to a jazz concert that celebrated the music of John Coltrane. It featured tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and beyond the drums was the legendary Jimmy Cobb, who has played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and more. He may be getting on in years but he can still kick it.

As I was listening, my mind drifted along with the music and this one line of words kept popping in my head. “Cool is the way it plays …” and this morning, I still had it there. “Cool is the way it plays ….” and as I was walking our dog, under the stars, this poem started to form for me.

I purposely tried to weave ideas in and around the lines, making an attempt to captures some of the ways I heard Javon Jackson play around with melodies and lines.

Cool is the Way it Plays

is the way it plays
on stage
the way the notes graze
against each other
in melodic memory
in harmonic time
in the rhythm of the line
is where the notes
take chances, sometimes,
I’m out here alone –
in there
you’re trying to find
the hook, the head,
the crazy way I said
to listen to that sound
coming from that horn
as if it were some theme
I’d heard before
we were born
reminding us
to listen,
to listen,
to listen to the currents
weaving in and out
of each other –
is the way it plays
on stage,
Put away the rage
dance along the line

You can listen to the podcast version of the poem, too.

Peace (in the cool),

March Book Madness: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

This is part of my March Book Madness series, and although I usually feature student projects, today I am sharing out my own review of a book that a lot of my kids have read: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. And it won a Cybil Award this year, too.

I read this book yesterday, in between my wanderings as a proctor for our last day of our state testing. The book has been sitting on my desk for weeks now, and I have even used the how-to instructions in the back of the book to have our entire class create little Yodas that now decorate my whiteboard. (I meant to take a picture and forgot. It’s cute. All those little Yodas.)

The story centers on sixth graders, and one boy who declares that his origami version of Yoda gives advice independent of him. A kid asks, and the Yoda replies. The book is told from the viewpoint of one main character, but he has “assembled” it as a case book — with smaller stories from various characters — to determine if Yoda is real, or just a fake. The story moves towards the main character getting up enough nerve to ask a girl to dance.

What I liked here was the “voice” of the writing. It felt as if Angleberger really captured the voice of sixth graders, with all of their quirks and social awkwardness, and also, their ability to still believe in something that is clearly at odds with reality (a finger-sized Yoda who gives advice.) The plot weaves its way towards a nice ending that nicely ties things up.

The illustrations along the margins of pages was a hoot, and the use of things like text messages, notes from the principal, and more, added to the playful feel of the story. I wasn’t sure of what to make of the character of Dwight, whose Yoda is at the heart of the story. He is socially out of touch, great at math but little else, and often the brunt of cruel jokes and comments by others. Aspergers?

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is strange, but entertaining.

Peace (of this I say),

PS — Here, the author explains how YOU can make an origami Yoda. Give it a try.

Slice of Life: Jammin’ and Listenin’

Slice of Life 2011The other day, I had a student pull me aside, out of earshot of his classmates. He was sort of whispering, so I had to bend my head to hear.

“Mr. H, if I bring in my guitar, will you jam with me?”

“Sure,” I said, without hesitation.

This isn’t the first time I have given up a prep period in order to play a little music with a student. It is the first time this year, however. There is actually a large crop of kids this year who play guitar and/or drums, and this student is one of those on my radar screen.

We set a day — it was Thursday — and he forgot all about it.  I had my acoustic guitar all set to go.  I told him I would keep my guitar in school for another day. He promised he would bring his gear in the next day. He didn’t. But he remembered that our music teacher keeps a few guitars around, so he asked her if he could borrow one of hers. She, of course, agreed, and soon he and I were strumming some songs.

Or rather, he was playing riffs for me to hear.

I think it was less that he wanted to play some songs with me than he wanted to show me that he has a musical talent. I was an attentive audience. As teacher, I often see him through the lens of writing and reading, and he can struggle at times. But he does have a good feel for the guitar, and he certainly loves music. His repertoire was mostly Green Day with a little Guns n Roses, but you have to start somewhere. We played a few songs — “Good Riddance” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” — but mostly, I just listened to him.

It reminded me, in this season of testing, how we need to remember that our students encompass more than just the sliver of time that we see them in our classroom. They are artists, musicians, actors, athletes, and more, and when we narrow our focus to a single academic area in a single hour of a single day, we sometimes lose sight of that. And like this young guitarist, they desire not only our approval as adults in their lives, but also, they yearn for our praise. He wanted me to “hear” him in a way that I might not otherwise.

So, I listened, and kept my guitar mostly quiet.

We ended our Jam Session and as we were packing up, I remembered back to a time when I was his age, when a group of us from my neighborhood used to gather together all sorts of musical gear — hand-me-downs from siblings or forgotten amps and guitars from parents — and play for hours, out of tune and a bit too loud, in the dingy basement of a friend whose mother was sympathetic. We were bad — maybe even awful — but we didn’t care. We were making music.

“You need to find some friends, start a band, and write some songs, ” I told him, pointing out some of the riffs he had played. Riffs are like sentences, and you string them together in a way to make a song.  “Get out there and play.”

He nodded. You never know when a comment might connect. He just might do it.

Peace (on the fretboard),

Dear Sen. Brown/Sen. Kerry: Support NWP

ImnwpHere is a letter I just sent off to my two Massachusetts senators. If you are in Massachusetts, can you spent a bit of your time to do the same? You can contact Sen. Kerry (D) here and Sen. Brown (R) here.

Dear Senator,

I know in the past you have been a strong supporter of the National Writing Project and I am writing you to urge you and your colleagues to reconsider moves by Congress and President Obama to eliminate federal funding for NWP.

As a sixth grade teacher, the National Writing Project network, and the connections I have made through the local Western Massachusetts Writing Project, have been invaluable. My skills as an educator have been enriched and supported through my work with National Writing Project teachers, and my students have benefited from those connections. I have gone deep into research around writing, reading and my own area of real expertise these days — technology and 21st Century Skills.

I understand that NWP funding was an “earmark,” which is a political sensitive issue these days. And I understand that President Obama sees a shift to competitive block grants. I am hopeful NWP still finds a way to fit within the framework of federal support.

However, the immediate loss of funding for NWP at the federal level will directly impact work that we teachers are doing in the classroom to instill a love of writing and to help strengthen language arts and technology skills that are needed for the future.

Please continue to find ways to support NWP. I appreciate any help you and your staff can give to us teachers and our networks.


Kevin Hodgson
Sixth grade teacher
William E. Norris Elementary School
Southampton, Massachusetts

Peace (in the lobby),

Slice of Life: It’s OK to Argue in Here

Slice of Life 2011We’re working on some daily persuasive writing as I toss out topics that I figure will garner some strong opinions from my sixth graders. The other day, we discussed the validity of our state’s MCAS test as a requirement for a high school diploma (you’d be surprised at how many students agree, given how much they dislike the test, and how many were completely unaware of the seriousness of the test in 10th grade). Yesterday, our topic was whether or not schools should allow students to use mobile hand-held technology devices in class.

We begin with some framing of the question, as I explained how many schools are grappling with this topic right now, and then we pushed into brainstorming around the issues for and against the topic at hand. This is where I try to balance between encouraging independent thinking and respectful listening. But they get it. They listen. They talk. They debate. It doesn’t get personal.

Since my students were mostly divided on this topic of mobile devices, I thought I would share out our brainstorming list of the pros and cons of allowing cell phones, iTouches, GPS and other devices from home into the classroom. I am sure you will find their insights as interesting as I did.

The Pros:

  • Handy research tool
  • Educational Apps
  • Built-in calculators and dictionaries
  • Ability to contact family
  • Ability to contact anyone in an emergency situation (they had a past lock-down drill on their minds, I think)
  • Less need to purchase expensive laptops
  • You can easily take pictures/videos
  • Email/Text teachers (I joked that this might fall under the “cons” side for teachers)
  • Move towards paperless classroom
  • e-books available for reading at any time
  • Some students work better, harder with music soundtrack

And the Cons:

  • A distraction for students
  • Inappropriate texting/instant messaging
  • Device might get damaged
  • Device might get stolen
  • Someone might hack into it
  • Games, not always educational
  • Social distraction (paying more attention to device than to people around them)
  • How would it get power/charge all day?
  • Pictures and video of others might be an invasion of privacy
  • The “cool factor” of the most expensive devices would create an equity issue (I was so proud of them for seeing this as a problem)

They then wrote for a bit and then a few shared out their writing. This was not a full writing project. It was a writing prompt, but I loved how it got discussions going around the room.  I could not help noticing that many of my most tech-savvy students were against the concept. Perhaps they were realizing their own difficulties with meshing their understanding of technology with the rules of the school.

Oh, and did I mention our school now has a class set of iTouches? We’re still working to use them (some PD is now underway) but that addition to our tech has piqued their interest and prompted the question by one student, “Why can’t I just bring my own in from home? It’s got all the apps I need.”

Peace (in the argument),

The Half-Full NWP/WMWP Glass: We Still Have Us

Basic RGB

We had our leadership meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project the other day. This is the first time we have gathered together as a team since we learned that federal funding for the National Writing Project, which provided crucial financial and logistical support for us, has been eliminated by Congress and President Obama.

The mood was somber and reflective, but it wasn’t a funeral procession. We still have a lot of hope and we still have  a lot of faith in NWP leaders to find a path forward for the organization that means so much to us. And we know the power of the network is with us, and not in budget line item.

As WMWP Director Anne Herringon noted, “A corp of us remember pre-NWP funding (before the group of WMWP founders hitched their wagon to NWP). At the least, we’d still be a loose confederacy of teachers. There won’t be nothing.”

Past WMWP Director Bruce Penniman noted that there may yet be ways to stay connected to funding in the federal government, but maybe not primarily with the Department of Education. Other departments, such as NOAH and the Department of Agriculture, have educational components who may want to partner up with a proven organization, like NWP.

“We can re-invent ourselves, if we have to,” Anne concluded, and then asked that we dedicate most of our April meeting to deeper discussions about the way forward in the face of uncertain federal funds.

Then, I heard a piece on the radio today about NPR, which is embroiled in its own difficulties and faces loss of federal funding. The piece showcased folks seeing this as an opportunity to try new things, to re-focus efforts on local communities, to push further into the web-based listener audience. Even NPR reporters see possibilities that weren’t there before.

And of course, I am still thinking of Bud Hunt’s blog post about needing to take a breath and look at what we have in the NWP. It’s a challenge, but it’s not the end of the world. We still have us.

So, if change is afoot, what kind of change might we envision for our WMWP site? How can we try to see the glass as half full?  I’ll put out a few ideas and I want to note very strongly that this is only me — one person — thinking things through, and not the WMWP leadership.

  • Since I came on board, we have seen our site’s direct engagement with students dwindle. This is mostly because of stipulations on how NWP/federal funds can be used. It can support professional development and teacher worker, but not student programs. I wonder if we can now re-double our efforts in helping meet the needs of student writers, directly. I feel as if student writing programs is an area that needs more attention, particularly in our urban and rural districts.
  • The reality is that our university, The University of Massachusetts Amherst, is very generous with its support of our WMWP, even in tough times. It provides release time for our leader (Anne, right now; Bruce, before that; Charlie Moran, before that) and office space and other intangibles that even I don’t quite understand. But that support is part of a matching funding agreement. Will UMass still support us without NWP funds? Given its own financial problems, I doubt it, a least in the long-term. Which means we might need to forge new partnerships with other community organizations. This won’t be easy and it is something Anne has been working on for years. I wonder if our cache as a place for teachers and writers and technologies might open the door for something at another space of higher learning? I’d hate to lose the UMass connection. But it might happen.
  • We need to redouble our efforts on grant programs. Anne and other do a lot of this right now — they work hard at this — and the fact is that we will need to cast a much wider net for grant opportunities, and begin to revamp some of our expertise to fit the needs of funding agencies. We can do this.
  • There has been tremendous work in creating inroads with our state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. As we talked about in our meeting, the state’s shift to a Common Core Curriculum (already underway) opens up an opportunity for our WMWP folks, some of whom are already doing deep work (thanks to NWP and its connections to the Gates Foundation). I think we can position ourselves as a leader for school districts wondering how to help teachers re-envision their curriculum in light of Common Core. I see this as a real positive direction (oh, and my wife is part of our WMWP team working on it, so I have a vested interest).
  • Will the loss of NWP bring forth new energy to our  WMWP? Will this turn of events with federal funding be a rallying cry for local folks? Our energy ebbs and flows. We’d like more flow, and less ebb. Perhaps folks who take WMWP for granted will suddenly remember why they connected with us in the first place, and reconnect on the journey ahead.
  • Will the shift mean more online presence work for our site? It may have to. Which means that our work on redesigning our website better get in high gear soon (the delay is mostly me, sorry to say). If funding limits what we can do in physical space, perhaps we need to become more acute in virtual space. We’re dipping our toes into online classes and offerings. We may need to make a full push ahead in this direction to leverage our expertise across a wider spectrum.

Yes, I am uncertain and worrisome about it all. But it does no good to harp on all the reasons why change is bad. We also need to remember what we tell our students: the only thing certain is that things will change.

Peace (in the glass),