Sharing the Page with Writers I Admire

Book cover

I still can’t believe it.

I opened up a package the other day and in it was a huge textbook, Modern Literature: Rhetorical and Relevant, and there, on page 505, is a graphic novel review that I did for The Graphic Classroom. The review is for the book After 911: America’s War on Terror, which I liked but found to have some shortcomings. What gets me is who else is in this textbook collection broken down into themes of social justice, identity,  global issues and more. I am squished in this tome with some of my favorite writers, such as Billy Collins, Dave Barry, Annie Dillard, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Marjane Satrapi and even Ray Bradbury.


To be honest, I almost turned down the request for the article because, eh, I wasn’t all that interested in being used by a huge publishing company trying to sell textbooks. But I wanted to get some good PR for my friend, Chris Wilson, at The Graphic Classroom, and I was able to work out a small financial deal from the company. At least, I told myself, I was getting paid for the writing gig.

If only I had known who else would be in the pages, I might not have resisted so much. (ha)

And then I was reading the foreword to the textbook (which I think is mostly targeted for California, but aren’t they all? Or Texas?), and I realize that one of the advisors behind the book is Kathleen Rowlands, who is the director of the Cal State University Northridge Writing Project. I am always happy to see writing project connections to any work I do. And I don’t even know her.

Finally, I started reading the textbook. I know. Who does that?  Who reads a textbook unless you have to? But there is some fine stuff in there, and while I mentioned a list of famous folks, there is an entire collection of some incredibly powerful student writing, poems and stories that showcase some amazing talent. Plus, there are comics and other non-traditional texts. That made me happy, too, to know some high school student somewhere has a chance to explore many kinds of text.

I can’t say I would run out and buy the book (it probably costs an arm and a leg) if I weren’t in it, but I am quite happy to have it on my bookshelves, knowing my words are sitting comfortably close to some wonderful writers. I hope they don’t mind a little riff-raff in the neighborhood.

Peace (in the book),

PS — a version of the review that I got published here is still over at The Graphic Classroom.


What We Were Doing on the National Day on Writing

(Here is a slideshow of some students at work at their writing and podcasting)


(Here are some of the podcasts, taken from Cinch)It was a fun day of writing, reading, sharing and podcasting with our school’s iPod Touch devices yesterday, as my students used the Cinch audio App, and Twitter, and their own voices about why writing is important to them, to participate in the National Day on Writing.(We started the day by turning our Interactive Board into a Grafitti board, with them tagging the board in any way they wanted — within limits for school, of course)

It’s so interesting to watch them jump into the mobile device world, which they seem to navigate with complete ease (maybe that that is more thanks to Steve Jobs than it is to their abilities) and take on an unfamiliar activity. With Cinch, I gave about three minutes of instructions and then set them loose. Soon, all around the room, they were hooked into the iPods, reading and re-reading (and revising, too), as they listened to their own voice. Then, after they published it, we added them into the mix of Twitter discussions around the Day on Writing.

They felt like they were part of something bigger than our own classroom, and our own school. That’s a powerful learning experience all of its own.

Peace (in the sharing),


Why Teachers Write (for National Day on Writing)

This video montage was something we at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project created last year during a meeting in which we wrote about why we write, and then shared out. As it turns out, that is one of the theme of today’s National Day on Writing. I’m sharing it here in hopes of reminding us as teachers that writing is an important element of learning and discovery for us, too. Not just our students. We need to model writing for them and then also, talk through our understanding of why we write.
Peace (in the sharing),

Did Ya Know: Tomorrow is the National Day on Writing

The third annual National Day on Writing takes place tomorrow (Thursday) and I would encourage you to consider ways that you can shine a spotlight on the ways that writing matters with your students. The day is sponsored by the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), but my National Writing Project is a key partner in the event. This year, the NWP has a theme of “Why I Write” and it has been publishing all sorts of interesting essays from famous people about the writing they do in their lives and why it is so important.

Here is some information from NWP about different ways you can participate or celebrate “Why I Write”:

Submit student essays to Figment will be accepting submissions from September 28 through October 29. Since “Why I Write” is a celebration of writing, there are no prizes, but a curated anthology of selected submissions will be available as an e-book later this winter. Submit to Figment.

New York Times Learning Network: The New York Times Learning Network will present a series of interviews with reporters who cover a range of beats and explore their writing process. These interviews will serve as the basis for lesson plans, prompts for students, discussions, and inspiration. More ›

NWP Radio: On October 20 at 7 p.m. EST, the National Writing Project will air a live radio show to celebrate the National Day on Writing with interviews with New York Times education reporter Fernanda Santos, New York Times Learning Network editor Katherine Schulten, Figment founder and New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear, Figment teen writers, and NWP teacher and author Ashley Hope Perez, among others. More ›

Tweet #whyiwrite: Tweet why you write and include the hashtag #whyiwrite so that everyone can see the many reasons people write. More ›

Post on Facebook: We’d like everyone to post why they write on their Facebook pages on October 20 and encourage others to do so. Let’s create a national dialogue about writing! More ›

Also, the NCTE hosts a National Gallery of Writing that is open for you and your students to contribute to. The gallery can be found here.

A poem I write for the ‘Why I Write’ theme:


is the echo in the silence

so I write

to find the patterns of reverberations

where the only voice I hear

is my own,

and the clattering chaos of the days

fade momentarily.

I am forever etched in ink

on paper and this digital canvas

and so I write,

as if everything hangs in the balance

of words.

And I am going to be helping my students write about this idea today, with the aim of using our school’s iPod Touch devices tomorrow to podcast their “Why I Write” responses over at our Cinch account, with the #whyiwrite hashtag. I am hoping their voices become part of the conversation around writing.

Peace (in the celebration),


Thoughts from WMWP on Common Core

We spent a good part of a Leadership Meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project yesterday, looking at and talking about the new Massachusetts Language Arts curriculum that is framed around the Common Core. Here are some notes from that discussion:

  • Most of our school districts have not yet begun to do much of anything related to the upcoming shift to the new state frameworks (mine seems to be ahead at this point, as we are using almost all of our professional development time with curriculum mapping as it relates to the shift)
  • There are “openings” for more collaboration between ELA teachers and content-area teachers, but we worry that our colleagues in the disciplines are not prepared for the ways literacy is framed to be taught “across the curriculum.” The content-area literacy ideas are bundled under the ELA frameworks, and those documents are not necessarily being given to non-ELA teachers (if there is such a thing, right?)
  • There’s an important theme of the introduction of the Massachusetts ELA document that stresses that the frameworks are not designed to dictate how things are taught, but rather, what students should be expected to have learned by the time they graduate high school. We appreciated that kind of language, as if feels more like adults talking as opposed to autocratic finger-pointing. Sort of.
  • ELA teachers are going to have to learn to teach new genres (scientific abstracts, “reading” data, understanding facets of historical documents, etc.) and shift the balance of fiction reading and fiction writing towards more informational text and expository/persuasive writing.
  • We all wonder what the assessment will look like and how that will drive the way the new curriculum is used by school districts. While the new curriculum seems on the surface to have flexibility, the nature of the assessment (our state is part of the PARCC group) will play a huge role for many schools. There was a genuine worry that financial considerations and logistical considerations will shape the assessment, rather than educational and learning practice.
  • While the Massachusetts curriculum acknowledges cultural and language diversity in its Guiding Principles, it seems like those principles get the back seat in the actual standards. This concerns our group, since one of our focus areas has been ways to support and nurture student voices. We talked about ways that a teacher could navigate through this minefield of language and expectations.
  • It was pointed out that while we often talk of the importance of an educated populace built around the three concepts of a strong democracy, pursuit of personal goals, and employment, the focus of the Common Core around college and career-ready goals says a lot about who was working on the original document.
  • While the Common Core may not be billed as a national curriculum, it sure is looking like it to us, and we noted that textbook companies are ramping up production of textbooks that tap into shared curriculum ideas among states, and we all know how often textbooks drive curriculum. That worries us, particularly if “canned curriculum” starts coming down the pike of Common Core.

It was a great discussion and we used an article from NCTE called “Keeping Students at the Center of the Common Core Classroom” by Lorna Collier (it was published in The Council Chronicle in September) as a piece of shared reading that shows ways that teachers can use and adapt the Common Core while still focusing on students as individuals. It’s a good piece to read, if you haven’t done so yet.

Peace (in the core),


Book Review: Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading

Now, this is a book I can use, although I pilfered it from my wife’s collection of teaching resources.

Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading (by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke) may not sound all that alluring but this resource of more than 75 news and magazine articles tied to various reading strategies in the various content areas (science and social studies being the main focus) is a goldmine of great ideas and handouts. Daniels and Steineke cull through The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, Car & Driver, and more to gather up great examples of topics that can be used for teaching reading skills.

As we talk more and more about the shift to the Common Core, with its emphasis on reading and writing in the content areas, this book provides another bridge for English teachers like me to bring various genres of writing beyond the narrative into the classroom, and for content-area teachers to bring more reading and writing skills into their classrooms.  Plus, the push for more reading of informational texts (charts, maps, data sets, etc.) and expository/persuasive writing is front and center in the Common Core, no matter what state you live in in.

Here, Daniels and Steineke make that work accessible and fun, with many of the activities geared around collaborative work by students. They also provide multiple extension activities so that a lesson could last 20 minutes or become an entire unit of instruction.

I already have in mind four of the ideas here for my sixth graders:

  • A jigsaw activity that uses two articles around genetic cloning — of dogs and cats. The students learn to annotate their text in preparation for sharing out their findings to their partners.
  • An activity called Quotation Mingle, in which students are given small pieces of an article that has been cut up, and their job — like a detective parlor game — is to determine the theme of the article. In this case, Daniels and Steineke provide an article about girls, driving and texting (high interest? you bet), and a handout of quotes taken from the article.
  • There is a whole lesson around the science of Invasive Species that nicely connects to science and geography, with articles on Fire Ants, and Killer Bees, and Asian Carp, and more.
  • And there is a very interesting activity called “Country X” in which students are given maps to a mystery country and they need to make inferences and judgements about that country. This “reading” of maps is important, as is the reading of data, and it is something I am working more on with my students.

I’m bringing this book into my school to show my principal, in hopes he might purchase it for our school library. My wife wants her book back.

Peace (in the sharing),


Poetry Book Review: Mirror Mirror (A Book of Reversible Verse)

I had never heard of Reverso poems before a colleague came in and dropped Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse in my lap, saying he thought I would like it “since they seem like those two-voice poems you like so much.” Well, the poems in this collection by Marilyn Singer had me hooked, and quick. She calls them “reverso” poems, in that you read the poem top to bottom for one meaning and then bottom to top for another meaning. The one thing that can change is the punctuations. But not the words in each line. The lines are the same, just flipped.

Got that?

In her lively picture book, Singer tackles fairy tale characters, cleverly twisting lines to show views and perspectives from opposite characters. Each page has both poems written, so you don’t really need to read from bottom to top (which might confuse some readers) and it did remind of that video The Lost Generation, where the text circles back on itself in an ingenious way to make a point about young people today.

Of course, I could not let the book go without trying my hand at it, too, right? So, here goes.  My poem is about writing.

I am embedding the poem as a podcast from top to bottom first, and then showing the poem, and then embedding the poem as podcast from bottom to top. That way, the audio at the top is heard first, and then you listen to the audio at the bottom and flip the text in your head. Reader, stay with me here, if you can. It’s fun stuff. (And before I forget to say it, get Mirror Mirror for your classroom and see what your young poets can do it with. I’m going to use it later this year, too).

Here is the poem read top-down.


These lines define me
by scribbling, scratching. Singing,
I transform symbols into meaning
with a simple gesture as smooth as ink.
Consider me
ever hopeful; a sign of my imagination
immersed in words.
I breathe in ideas.
I breathe out stories.

Here is the poem read bottom-to-top.


Peace (in the poems),


Interactive Board ActivExpression: Txtng for Lrng?

I’ve written about how one of my personal goals this year is to jump in with my Promethean Interactive Board and try to use it to its fullest this year (as opposed to last year, when it was a nice expensive projector). Since the start of the year, we’ve used the ActiveVotes to study for quizzes and spark discussions before starting new units; I’ve used the “containers” system for some interactive activities at the board; I’ve handed the pen over to kids any number of times and let them come up and annotate text and answer questions; and more.

This past week, I grabbed the one set of devices in our school known as ActivExpressions for use in a vocabulary activity. These handheld devices are different than the ActiVotes, in that the user (student) can do a variety of things, including provide numerical answers and type in their own words as responses. You can even fashion an activity with a variety of kinds of responses (which is a nice bit of flexibility) and even quickly put a question on the board that comes up unexpectedly in discussions, and have kids answer it within in minutes. (Of course, they would have to have the ActivExpression at their desk). It’s a bit like bringing texting into the classroom. The devices work just like a cell phone, as you punch through the letters to spell a word.

It was simple to set up and pretty interesting to watch.

On tough questions that required some deep thinking and responses, you could hear a pin drop in the room as they were writing out answers. Looking at the spelling of the words (which gets displayed on the board in a chart, which you can save and which allows you to also isolate data from individual users), you could see all of the mannerisms of texting (the dropped vowels and shorted word parts), even though I told them to spell the words correctly. In one class, one student urged his classmates to “use a capital letter at the start and a smiley face at the end” so that all of those would get grouped together on the chart. In each class, there was usually an informal race to be the first to finish (the marathon texters came to light).

They loved the devices because it reminded them of using cell phones outside of school, but was it a solid learning tool?

I don’t know.

Honestly, I need to learn more about the possibilities and maybe see more models in action. From a “time” perspective, it wasn’t a very efficient use of the class period. Some kids take forever to text. And you have to wait for everyone to be done before showing the graph. I could have done the same activity on paper, in about half the time, and gotten pretty much the same data set on my own.

I still have an open mind about it, but I’ll have to have a better justification for using this technology other than it’s just cool for my students and reminds them of their cell phone. I need more than that, as a teacher (even one who believes in technology). I need to do more work on my end before I have them doing the learning on their end.

Peace (in the expressions),

PS — And I kept thinking, what would my webcomic character Boolean do with this device? He’d hack into it for some sort of mischief, I am sure.

Students Make for Tough Teachers

It’s early in the year, and I am trying to get most of my students up to speed to where I think they should be as writers and readers, and part of that is giving them an opportunity to switch gears. The other day, we used a non-fiction text as a source for a writing response, but I told them to leave their names off of it. Today, we took those out (and mixed up the responses with other classes responses), and I had them (students) become me (the teacher).

They used our sixth grade writing rubric to evaluate the writing in front of them. We reviewed  the elements of the rubric, what they should be looking for and how to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of what they were seeing. And of course, they had to write their own post-grading reflection on how they will use the experience of “being the teacher” to inform their own writing.

I was interested in seeing how tough they would be on their peers. So, for all four classes, I collected data on the assessments they gave to the writing in front of them. We’re in a standards-based system (no more A, B, Cs) and so the rubric is all about M (meeting grade level expectations), P (progressing towards expectations), B (beginning to meet those expectations) and N (not meeting expectations). These assessments are tied directly to our progress reports (formally known as report cards).
reading response rubric
I decided to compare their overall assessment with my own assessment of some other writing response work done last week, just to see if we were following a similar pattern. Here’s how it looks:
Writing Assessment Chart student v teacher
One thing I noticed right away is that I gave out more Ms and Ps, while they were more apt to give out Bs to their peers. (Note: An N is pretty rare because the writing would have to be off-topic and show no signs of structure.) There are all sorts of variables here, of course, including a different writing assignment (the one I graded was in response to a novel); no exemplars for this particular assignment (it was a news story from Time for Kids); and a lack of knowing what to look for. But still… I find it interesting how tough they were.

As an aside, they kept asking for red pens. Now, I only use green pens, but they really wanted the red ink. (I declined to pull out any red pens). I find that … intriguing, I guess, and wonder how much of that red ink has been spilled on their papers in the past and what it represents to them.

One student said firmly, though: “Oh, I would never use red. It looks like blood on the page.”

Peace (in the teacher-mode),