Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Cabin Fever

Diary Wimpy Kid Cabin Fever

On the day I handed my 11 year old son the release of the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — Cabin Fever — he was done within an hour and had passed it to his older brother, who was done with the book within 45 minutes.  My youngest son took it up and told me he was “just reading the comics.” Well, I asked the older boys? Is it any good?

“There’s no story. Or at least, not until the end,” one boy complained.

“It had some funny bits. But I already forget what it was about,” the other added.

And so it goes. The excitement over the recent installment of a popular series inevitably leads to the eventual let-down of reality. Or it may be that my older boys have “aged out” of the mis-adventures of Greg Heffley.

I have long enjoyed Jeff Kinney’s work with the Wimpy Kid series (although I thought the movie was just dumb) and certainly, his success flooded the market with so many knock-offs that book shelves in book stores (the ones that still exist) are weighed down with text/illustration humor novels aimed at elementary and middle school readers. I have even used part of the “blank” book he put out a few years ago with various writing and drawing prompts for his readers. There’s some fun activities in there.

This latest edition to the series is, as my boys note, sort of a bit too much fluff and not enough story to hold the thing together. My students who ordered the book early and then devoured it … had similar reviews. And they were disappointed, particularly given the build-up within Scholastic (order now! wait five weeks!).

Which is not to say there are not funny moments in this book. Kinney’s too good to be a complete let-down. Topics such as playground safety in schools (Result? removing all playground structures), anti-bullying workshops (Greg feels sorry for the bully), gaming (the use of Net Kritterz is pretty funny satire at the state of gaming and commerce), nut-free cafeteria zones (leads to crowded tables for everyone else), nutrition in schools and the inclusion of graphic novels in the library.

But I wonder if Kinney needs another outlet for his humor and whether the Wimpy Kid has run its course. I am certain that Kinney will find his footing, though, and I remain a fan of his as a writer and humorous dude.

Peace (with the Kid),

PS — by the way, did you see this great parody of President Obama and the Wimpy KId series in the Boston Globe? Check it out. It had me laughing so hard …. in a painful political way.


My Nominations for the Edublog Awards 2011

  • Best individual blog: I have come to look forward to Audrey Watter’s Hack Education ( posts. They are long, and deep, and I often need to allocate more than a quick read. I appreciate that she doesn’t need to shorten or dumb down her ideas around education. While some of the focus seems to be on higher education, her unflinching look at trends and ways to push traditional education in new directions is a delight.
  • Best individual tweeter: Pam Moran ( is one of my favorite tweeters. Her insights into education as an educator, writer and administrator show a myriad of thinking paths, and she is responsive to others and as likely to share an idea as she is to ask for help. You can find her at Twitter at @pammoran
  • Best group blog: The Cooperative Catalyst ( is an interesting stew of ideas that really pushes up against many topics and ideas. What I love about the various writers at the Coop is how they are fearless in the things they believe in and yet, they open invite opposing views. Unlike some group sites, the Coop doesn’t ever feel insular in nature.
  • Best new blog: Jeremy Hyler ( Jeremy is middle school teacher who tells it like it is,a and yet, even when he is being critical of himself or the system or even his students, he ends his writing on a positive note that indicates his blog-based thinking is leading to action and change. He’s also a fellow National Writing Project teacher.
  • Best class blog: I am biased here, but I still look forward to the posts by a kindergarten teacher in my school — Gail Poulin — who chronicles her year with her young students in many ways. Her classroom blog – – showcases the various elements of literacy learning, community service, inquiry projects and technology integration. As her colleague on the other side of the school, I am honored to share the same building as Gail. Plus, I get to see my future students in the early stages of their development as learners. Pretty neat.
  • Best student blog: I am not sure this is a classroom project. It probably isn’t. But I love the book reviews that Corey gives at his Book Talk blog — — and the more insights I have into what kids are reading, the more I can steer my students towards books that will interest them. I like how Corey has a book of the month and asks questions to consider about the books he is reading.
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog: So many resource blogs have sprung up in recent years. But I still rely heavily on Richard Byrne’s Free Tech for Teachers ( for not only sharing his discoveries, but also for the way he frames the technology tools as a way for learning. His writing is as rich as the tools.
  • Most influential blog post: I found Will Richardson’s blog post — My Teacher is an App  ( — to be thoughtful and thought-provoking in the way he framed the discussion around online education and the possibilities and the dangers of that shift. What makes it influential to me is that it made me think of the issue in a new light, with the app metaphor … well, apt.
  • Best Twitter hashtag: I loved this year’s Day on Writing’s #whyiwrite hashtag (!/search?q=%23whyiwrite). The posts and the tweets over the course of the day were just wonderful examples of how we write and why we write. The hashtag collection was overflowing that day, reminding us of the importance of writing in our lives.
  • Best teacher blog: I enjoy the posts coming out of Jeremy Kaiser’s Web 2.0 Edu blog (  It may be that our interests intersect a lot (stopmotion video, etc.) but I also find his thinking helps my thinking, and isn’t that the beauty of collecting RSS feeds from blogs?
  • Best librarian / library blog: A Year of Reading ( with Mary Lee and Franki is such an insightful breath of fresh air, as they move between book recommendations and how to revamp a school library with technology and clusters of activity. They have created spaces, and this online space, that is informative and enriching.
  • Best School Administrator blog: I think The Principal’s Page ( is a good inside look into the world of the administrator. I suspect that many of us teachers don’t quite get the stress and pressure our principals are under these days as jobs are looked upon through the scope of data and graphs. This blog reminds us that there are struggled aplenty when you are in the front office.
  • Best free web tool: I have to admit, I love Cinch ( for its ease of use for podcasting for myself and with my students. With options for browser-based recording, mobile device apps and even via a cell phone, Cinch really is a great resource for finding your voice and adding it to the world.
  • Best educational use of audio / video / visual / podcast: Teachers Teaching Teachers ( continues to be one of the best conversations around, and the step into using Google Video Hangouts added a new dimension this year. With topics right off the headlines (such as Occupy and more), TTT is a place to go for great conversations around teaching.
  • Best educational wiki: The Cool Tools for Schools ( is a great resource, chock full of interesting links grouped by topic.
  • Best open PD / unconference / webinar series: I took a course at P2PU ( with Bud Hunt around the writing components of the Common Core. It was my first foray into an open online course, and I have to say, it was wonderful. There was an interesting flow to the discussions and the platform made it easy to follow along and jump into conversations.
  • Best educational use of a social network: Youth Voices ( continues to be a model for students coming together to write and to share and to explore. This year, organizers Paul Allison and Chris Sloan have made a concerted push to add an elementary/middle school element to the site, expanding the possibilities even further.
  • Lifetime achievement: Bud Hunt ( continues to get me thinking with his sharp posts, and inspiring me with his reflective practice. I just hope a lifetime achievement award doesn’t stop the person from continuing to share their best practices with us.

Make your own nominations for the Edublog Awards.

Peace (in the sharing of resources),


Considering the Strength of Student Passwords

I had an interesting conundrum this week in which a website that I brought my students into had a temporary bug in the security feature that did not compromise the accounts, but it did invalidate a series of security questions that would allow my students to access their passwords if they should forget them or if they were to get lost. Unfortunately, unlike most educational sites these days, this particular one does not have a master list of student usernames and passwords available.

So, the day after I realized the bug (which was fixed), I gave each student a piece of paper and had them write down their username and password for me so that I could make a master list. I had to explain that no one would have access to the list (a few looked nervous, which is good) and that it would only be if they forgot their password or username.

This weekend, I created my list and began to notice some trends around passwords that I never really paid attention to before. And given that I am developing a digital citizenship unit for January, I see now that “Password Education” is going to be part of those lesson planning. While some students did a nice job of mixing up letters and numbers in a way that would be difficult to be hacked, I noticed some other things:

  • One student, out loud in class, announced that he uses the same password for every site. And then he began to list out the sites that he uses: Facebook, YouTube, etc. Another student, one of his friends, announced that was true and that he knew the password. Not a good idea, I told both of them. I suggested he change his common password, and vary it for various sites.
  • One of the usernames in our site appears to be the phone number of the student. Yikes! The site is closed to the public, but still … I found that very odd.
  • A few usernames were their real first and last names. Again, the site is closed. But I specifically said they should come up with a username that is invented. Maybe I did not stress that clear enough.
  • In a few cases, the password was exactly the same as the username. That doesn’t do much good, does it?
  • One student wrote her username and password in sharpie marker on the front cover of her binder. I noticed it when they were filling out my sheet. Not too secure, I told her. She covered it up with a book, as if that would solve the matter.
  • One password was clearly the home address of the student.
  • A couple of the passwords were only three letters. That’s not as bad as some of the above, but the more characters, the harder it is to hack.

Of course, these are sixth graders and their main goal is to be able to remember their usernames and passwords, so they go the easiest route possible. My job is to teach them and remind them how to keep their data safe, and their accounts secure, and along with a conversation this week about it, it will become part of my upcoming digital educational unit, too.

Here are two resources that are handy when talking about passwords.

First, check out this infographic. It’s a good talking point.

Second, check out this site — Password Bird – which creates passwords based on some basic questions, and mixing up the words. I am going to come up with sort of activity that forces them to invent a few possible passwords. Another site — Strong Password Generator — is good, but the passwords that come out of the engine would be difficult for my students to remember, I think, even with the memory hints.

But I like this information from the Strong Password Generator site:

A strong password:
has at least 15 characters;
has uppercase letters;
has lowercase letters;
has numbers;
has symbols, such as ` ! " ? $ ? % ^ & * ( ) _ - + = { [ } ] : ; @ ' ~ # | \ < , > . ? /
is not like your previous passwords;
is not your name;
is not your login;
is not your friend’s name;
is not your family member’s name;
is not a dictionary word;
is not a common name.

What it comes down to is an understanding of WHY we have passwords in the first place. This year, I notice, there is less of an awareness of security of online sites with my students. I’m not sure why that is. Without stirring up too much fear and anxiety, though, I want to inform them of ways they can protect their data, and also (when it comes to social networking sites) their reputations.

Peace (in the password),



A View of Some Imaginary Lands

My students recently completed a project in which they picked apart informational text (travel brochures) and then created their own with the design features of that text. These Imaginary Lands also needed to include some themes of peace, in coordination with our school-wide Peacebuilders program. Here is a collection of the projects pulled together with Animoto and featured at our class YouTube site. I’ll share another day my lesson plan, which I revamped this year in order to tie it to the Common Core.

Peace (in the lands),


Explaining the Occupy Movement


Yesterday morning, I asked a question in our morning work:

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been in the news these days. What do you think the slogan “We are the 99 Percent” means?

I had more blank looks than I have ever seen out of my students. Not only did most of them not know what the Occupy Movement was about, they didn’t even know what Wall Street was. Never mind the 99 Percent (one thought it was about the authenticity of a product someone was selling). In fact, of my 21 students, only three had any inclination of what I was asking them about and of those three, only one had some semblance of facts (mainly because his family drove by the Occupy Boston site recently on their way to a sports game).

I did my best to bring them a balanced view of the movement (stymied when one student asked what “economics” is, causing me to pull back my vocabulary even further). I probably did not do such a great job, although I was sure to balance my explanation with criticism of the movement, too. It’s a complex political situation with many offshoots that require more than I could give in that short period of time. I wish I had had time to show the video (above) that Larry Ferlazzo shared out, but I wonder if the information is too complex for my kids.

What I have been hoping for is that Time for Kids magazine does a cover story on the movement so we could use the reading for more discussions. But the magazine has avoided it almost completely, it seems to me (maybe for the same reasons I have struggled with it).  Waiting for Time for Kids may just be a cop out on my end, but I feel as if I need a “teachable hook” to make it relevant to my students. As I told them, and as I remind them all year, they need to be paying attention to the world and to current events, and the politics of today are going to shape the world they become adults in. They can’t just be living under a blanket, ignoring what is going on around them.

On a related note, my 13 year old son read an article about Occupy in Rolling Stone, and promptly said to me, “I want to go to Occupy Wall Street.” I asked him why. “I want to see it in person. They’re saying something,” he explained. A day later, New York City tossed everyone out of the park where Occupy Wall Street began. But a little Occupy movement has sprung up in our small city’s downtown. I might just take him there and see what he thinks.

Peace (in the movement),
PS — here is a comic I shared last week, poking fun at Occupy. Now I wonder if my students will even “get it” when they see it on our comic site.


What Gaming Looked Like in My Classroom

It was a mix of excitement (“We’re going to play video games?”) to chatter (“How did you do that?” – “Here, like this.” — “Cool. Thanks.”) to challenge (“Why is this sooooo hard … wait … I got it … yeah!”) to surprise (“Some of these games have shooters? In school?”) as I brought my four classes of sixth graders into Gamestar Mechanic yesterday in preparation for a future project around game design and visual literacy. When I mentioned they will be able to design and publish a game to a gaming community of other kids, and maybe take part in a national contest around game design, they were all ears and ready for action. (see yesterday’s post)

At one point, I had a student on my Mac with the Interactive Board up and running. I looked over and a crowd of kids were at the board, giving him advice. Apparently, he gotten to a level he could not master, and his classmates came over to help give him advice at the board. That was one of those “cool” moments for me, when they came together to solve a tricky game challenge.

I had one student who informed me that Minecraft has a teacher’s “shell” that might be perfect for the classroom and “you should really check that out, Mr. H” as I nodded, and made a mental note to do a little more research on Minecraft (which I did and found this wiki all about Minecraft and the classroom). When it comes to gaming, we teachers have to be open to the ideas of our students (but, we also need to be cautious that some of the games they play are not appropriate for school).

We had some odd technical difficulties that had me a bit more crazed than usual, but we found solutions and work-arounds, and the kids were more adaptive than I was at times, it seemed to me (don’t worry – I kept my cool .. no cursing ensued). I never got a real chance to have a full reflective conversation afterwards with them about their thoughts about Gamestar Mechanic. They were gaming right up until the end of class. I had to pry the laptops out of their fingers and kick them out of my room (slight exaggeration but still …)

We’ll be back. And I am certain a high number of kids were playing last night, too.
Peace (in the games),


Video Game Design, STEM Challenge and Visual Literacy


My plan for today is to bring all of my sixth graders up into Gamestar Mechanic to get situated with accounts, play around with the site and get a feel for what is possible. Sometime next month, we will move into a lesson and project around game design. I have to admit: I am curious to see which students latch onto the site and which don’t. I don’t expect every student to be highly wired into gaming but my kids have been open to just about anything I have thrown their way this year (and kids who don’t quite love comics enjoy our webcomic site at Bitstrips).

As I was putting my plans into place last night (and hoping I have access to our computer cart today), I came across this post about the 2011 STEM Video Game Challenge (and the video above, in which last year’s winner explains a bit about where his idea came from and how he went about his game design idea — incredibly insightful and valuable for my lesson! My students will definitely connect with this boy’s message.). As we move into various ways that literacy can extend into the content areas (including visual literacy, which gaming is), I am wondering if this is a kind of contest/challenge that I can take on with my students and what it would look like in the writing classroom. I have some ideas, but now I need to think it through a bit more.

I’m definitely intrigued by the possibilities …

Peace (in the game),
PS — check out this page of winners from last year’s competition.



Podcasting Activity: Introducing … Literary Characters

As we are on the middle of a six week independent reading unit, one topic of discussion is character analysis and character traits. Yesterday, I had my students writing an “introduction” to a character from the book they are reading. On Monday, we will be using our Ipod Touch devices and the Cinch app to record a podcast version of their writing. It’s a nice way to share out what they are reading and keep pushing them to go beyond just writing summaries of what they are reading. (We do everything but summaries for this unit).



I am reading and writing along with them, and the other day, I finished Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Man, what a book! I know I am late to the game with this novel, which has rightly received a slew of accolades over the years. I loved its use of poetry, and setting, and first person narrative. And the connection to music as a sort of lifeline to the world, and the inner music inside of all of us … wow. There is just so much that is good with this book, even if it is sad and emotional. I guess that’s what makes it so great — its heart is not fake.

Anyway, here is my podcast of my writing, in which I introduced the narrator — Billy Jo — to my class.


Peace (in the book),
PS — here are some of the podcasts from last year


Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


For years now, I have been using Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderful The Mysteries of Harris Burdick picture book (the portfolio edition is best) for creative writing prompts and projects. It’s an ingenious collection of illustrations and captions from a “lost writer” whose stories are “missing,” leaving us only with the strange pictures and odd bits of writing beneath them that create many questions. My sixth graders love using Harris Burdick for writing because the illustrations spark incredible curiosity … about the missing stories and about the mystery behind the writer, Harris Burdick. They always want to know if Harris Burdick was real, and I dodge that question with all the expertise I can muster.

Now comes along The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a new collection of short stories inspired by the picture book, but here, famous authors such as Stephen King (and his wife, Tabitha), Kate DiCamillo, Jon Scieszka, M.T. Anderson, Corey Doctorow and a handful of others take a stab at the 14 tales, too. Plus, Lemony Snicket provides his own brand of humorous introduction, casting forth a marvelous conspiracy theory about Harris Burdick and the writers featured in the book. What these novelists spin it out here is just as magical as what my students come up with (although, I still like my students’ stories better but you can put me down as biased on that point.)

What’s interesting to me is how many different directions a single story can go, even if they are all based on a similar illustration. We all have different perceptions and different insights, even if we start or end with the same idea. I’ve noticed this in class, too, but here, these professional writers take the stories on such interesting journeys that even as I was reading them, I was remembering some of the stories that I have written over the years using the same pictures (I write with my students all the time … you should, too). I kept pausing, thinking of the twists and turns on display.

And here’s the thing: Since I had used similar illustrations for similar story writing, it made their writing more visible to me. I was an active thinker the whole way through, noticing a sleight feint of hand here or a quirk in a character that I predicted might come in handy later on in the story or a hint early on that would move us closer to the scene in the picture. It was a pretty fascinating experience.

When my students saw me reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, they perked up. They’re curious, too. The day I finished the book in class during our quiet reading time, I had a line of students waiting to read it next. I have only one copy of the book, but the eagerness on their faces to see what other writers have done was priceless.  The girl who got it first was smiling wide and there was reading envy on the others’ faces. I think I might be making a trip to our photocopy machine one of these days and maybe share a story or two with everyone ….

Peace (in the mystery),


Dissection of the Question

Breaking Apart an Open Response Question

One thing that I have learned in teaching various strategies around open response to my sixth graders over the years is that many have a real difficulty understanding the question itself (this seems more for math than reading). They get hobbled by the vocabulary, or the style in which the question has been written, or they get confused by multiple-part questions. This year, thanks to an interesting workshop that I attended last month around open response work, I am trying to do more work around how to read a question.

So, yesterday, we began some work by reading … only open response questions. We had no ideas what the reading passage was that the question asked about, nor did we care all that much what the answer might be. We were only focused on questions, and I now have a long list of open response questions from various state tests as a resource.

The strategy is three-fold:

    • Circle the action word that you are being asked to do;
    • Underline the main essential points of the question;
    • Number any parts of the question or topics that seem important.

We went through three of four of these questions together on our whiteboard (see image) with students coming up and marking up the sentence while talking through what they were doing, and then they worked on a few questions at their seats, which we then shared out. Our next step is for them to learn how to use a modified two-column chart for organizing their ideas before they start to write. (This is where the numbering of items will come in handy because we can deal with main ideas and supporting details).

It seems a bit odd to be using so much class time for this kind of isolated question dissection, and yet, I am attempting to give them the tools so that they can be the most successful in my assigned open response questions (which is what we mostly do now in our reading units) and on our state’s testing system in the spring. Organization and understanding of what is being asked of them in a question seem be roadblocks for many, and I want them to be confident as they share their thinking.

Peace (in the question),