Writing with My Students: Earth as Experiment

I have been trying to work for more content-area related connections to our mostly-daily writing prompts in class as part of our shift into Common Core writing, and of course, as they write, so do I (and so should you). One resource that has been making my life easier is the blog  simply called Writing Prompts but which is completely made up of visual prompts. Many of them connect nicely with science, math and social studies. And most are very thought-provoking. It’s a wonderful site.


On Friday, we used this one about earth as a science experiment, and it tied in with their recent work in science around the Scientific Method. We talked about what the alien might hypothesize, and then what kind of data collection it might do, and what conclusions it would discover. Then, they had a choice: they could create a fake science experiment write-up, a dialogue skit between the alien and a teacher, or a short story. I wrote this short story with them, using humor to tell my story.

“I can’t stand these planetary science experiments,”  I grumbled, pushing another nebula galaxy towards my best friend, Zingledoop. “It’s so … meaningless. Like, when will we ever need to know how to make a planet?”
”I know. And it always ends in disaster,” Zingledoop replied. He took the galaxy and popped into his nutrient chute. “Remember the last one?”
Of course, I did. I still have a vision of that flattened planet, all smooshed because Zingledoop had sat on it accidentally. We’d thrown that planet away into the intergalactic trash bin, just like the others.
“Maybe this one will be different,” I said hopefully. “What do the instructions say?”
Zingledoop pulled the instructions out of his left nostril and looked it over. “Create a planet with life forms that are destined to destroy the planet. Come up with a hypothesis, data collection and be prepared to write a conclusion of your experiment.”
“Great,” I said. “We’re just going to let them destroy it?”
“Unless we do it first,” Zingledoop said, and we both laughed.
We quickly got down to work. In some ways, we were old pros at this. We’d created our fair share of planets and done plenty of intergalactic science experiments. With this planet, we decided that we would see what happens if we incrementally increased the planet temperatures. With ice caps and large oceans, the place would soon be flooded out. Or at least, that’s what we predicted.  We’d be speeding up time to see if our prediction came true or not.
It was sort of boring. We’d “done” planets. What we wanted were Universes, but our teacher kept telling us “first things first.” So, here we were, creating this planet called …
“What’s this place to be called?” I asked.
Zingledoop looked at the instructions. “Earth,” he answered.
”Earth? That’s a pretty lame name.”
“Yeah. But on the bright side of things, it won’t be around for long.”
We both laughed again.

Peace (in the experiment),


App Review: My Doodle Game

My Doodle Game

I was about one minute into trying out My Doodle Game, an app for the iPad that allows you to make Doodle-Jump style games, when my seven year old demanded (with vigor) that I let him take over and create the game. And by the way, Dad, go away for while and I will call you back when my game is ready to go. So I left the room and came back, and then I played a pretty neat game that my son designed and created within a short amount of time.

My Doodle Game is surprising rich, and robust (and I thank my friend, Skip Via, for showing me how students he is documenting in Alaska are using iPads for this app). Best of all? The app is free. That’s right. Free. (There is a cost for the software version for computers and it runs about $15. I’d rather have free, to be honest. Now, this free cost means that you don’t have access to every character and every option in the pretty extensive library, but there is plenty to do with the free options, including an array of heroes and villains and various objects to place in the path of your little stickman. You can also pay to add more to your library.

If I had a class of iPads (oops, I mean a class of students with iPads … hehehe), I would add My Doodle Game to the list of apps I’d like to see on there. In fact, I’d want more apps to be like this one — shifting the student from player of the game to creator of the game.

See what the kids from Alaska were up to:


Peace (in the app),


Book Review: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out

On the second day of school this year, two of my sixth graders came up to me, incredibly excited. These two bous asked if I would watch their latest video on Youtube. It was a video that captured them and their friends on scooters, on our school grounds, doing all sorts of neat tricks, set to pounding music. They were doubly-excited when I allowed them to share the video with the rest of the class, and now give me regular updates on their video exploits. The proud look on their faces was priceless, particularly that early in the year.

I mention this episode because these boys were on the back of my mind as I was reading through Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, a collection of ethnographic research studies out of MIT around youth and media and technology that are pulled together in a collective voice around themes such as friendship, family, intimacy, gaming, work, and more. What stands out for me here is how the authors so successfully captured the voices of youth through their various interviews with their subjects. We “hear” the kids talking through the use of social networking, and video gaming, and video production. It’s a fascinating look at what young people are doing, and why they are doing what they are doing in these various ecologies of connections. The sections around gaming and video use was particularly insightful as a teacher, and the sections on the disconnect between parents and their children was eye-opening as well.

It also reminds me that we need to have more of these conversations with our young people in our own spaces, whether that is our classroom or our homes.

It’s clear that the learning going on in traditional classrooms is not reaching many of these media-saturated youths, who see school only as another place to network and not necessarily as a place to learn skills around media production and technology use. After-school clubs and spaces fill that gap, to some degree, but mostly, it is youth turning to other youth for mentorship and collective knowledge around these ideas. They are driven by passions that we don’t always acknowledge or cherish in our schools. What the authors rightfully note, though, is that this horizontal learning of friend-to-friend can also leave a lot of kids out, adding to the difficulties of the digital divide/app gap/whateveryouwanttocallit. Access to technology remains a huge hurdle for many communities of kids.

Although much of the networking chapters revolve around MySpace, I just substituted Facebook in my head and it was fine (although the elements of MySpace that kids liked — such as completely designing your homepage yourself with hacks — doesn’t quite pertain to Facebook, and that lack of personaluty makes me wonder if another site will come along to drain young people away from Facebook now that MySpace is just about dead and gone.) I also imagined that the networking elements described in the studies, now a few years old, has magnified and intensified dramatically for many kids.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who teaches young people, or who has children growing up in this age of media and technology. The collection here is very scholarly in tone, as befits these enthnographic studies, but don’t let that academic tone turn you off. It’s worth diving through all of that to get to the heart of the matter: the fact that the ways in which  kids are learning is changing and most of that learning is being done outside of school. The book certainly made me think of my own boys, and my students, in a different sort of light.

As I was reading Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out, I was using Goodreads as a place to stop and reflect at various points in the book. Here is a copy of that page, which you need to read in reverse order if you want to follow my thinking from the start of the book until the end.
Reviews of Hanging Out

Peace (in the inquiry),


How Publishing Slows Down Time

I was very happy to receive an email this week, informing me that a poem I had submitted for a local poetry anthology collection had been accepted. A contract/agreement was attached to the email and I dutifully signed it, and sent it back. I happened to glance at the date of publication for the poetry book: October 2012. That’s an entire year away.

The poem itself is a loving tribute to the old railroad bed in our neighborhood that has been given new life as a rail trail. I called it “Ghost Train” because I often imagine the trains running in the background of the woods as we ride our bikes or walk the trails during the warm seasons. The book is a collection of poems that capture the city where I live, a place I am proud of and love raising my family in. There’s no compensation for the poem, just a copy of the book.

What’s interesting is that when I tweeted that my poem would be published, a number of folks began asking me where they could find the link. They assumed it was online, and immediately accessible. It’s not.  We’re still a year away from the book form of the anthology. And it got me thinking through the day how odd it is for me to think about having to wait another year to see the poem in print, and even then, it may not be online anywhere. In fact, I submitted the poem many months ago and forgot all about it. I had to dig the poem back up and look through the lines again to remember what it is that I wrote, and remind myself why I liked it in the first place enough to submit it to the anthology.

I guess I have settled into the world of immediate publishing, like so many of us writers who use technology for publishing. I write it, I edit it, I publish it.  I get feedback. I revise, if necessary, and re-publish. I move on. This particularly anthology is forcing my poem to slow down. These conflicted feelings about the poem — about my inner push to publish against the need to accept the natural progress of book publishing — strikes me as a metaphor for the transition that the world of publishing is in these days (and why there are questions about how it will survive).

What will it be like to rediscover my poem in another year, when the writing of it will be almost two years in the past? Will I even like it anymore? I hope so.

Here are the first lines:

Ghosts of freight trains
ride these rails,
sound asleep beneath the bed
of fallen leaves.

The rest you will have to wait a year to read …

Peace (in the poems),


When Life Imitates Video Games

Zombie Restaurant screenshot

We’re often talking in education circles about the ways that young people’s video gaming interests intersect with real world — either for good or for bad. This post is sort of a strange twist on that idea.
The other day, I had to stay home with my three boys (they had no school because of Election Day), and I took my older ones (ages 11 and 13) out to lunch at a new family diner that opened up. This was our first time in the joint. We wandered in and the two boys stopped dead in their tracks.
“This place …” one began, and the second picked it up,”This place is almost identical to the restaurant.”
“What restaurant?” I asked, as we made our way to a table. I thought they were thinking of some other place in town. A diner is often a diner, you know. But that is not what they were thinking about.
“The one in our game,” said one boy. “On the iPod.”
“Except,” the other one explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “without the Zombies.”
Apparently, one of their Zombie app games (what is it with Zombies anyway?) is structured around running a restaurant and the inside layout and color designs of that virtual business resembled the lay0ut this real business. And it was clear that was not the intent of the owners here. (Unless they really are Zombies).
My boys paid careful attention to the service we were given (which was slow and disorganized), and they played the “game” as if it were live in front of us, deducting points when the waitress gave us the wrong order and forgot to deduct a meal from our bill. And the quality of food led to a lowering of the waitress’ “score.”
“That’s another few points from her,” one would say, and the other would nod. “But if she changes the channel on the television, she can earn a few more back.” (That didn’t happen)
It was odd, watching them use the real place as a sort of gaming center as it if were some immersive experience.
But I suspect that more and more kids who are used to all sorts of gaming platforms will start to see the world through some of those same lens (minus the Zombies). It may not be as amusing as it was to my kids in that restaurant (which we won’t be going back to, thanks the huge reduction in points) but their activity is worth noticing and wondering about as we consider ways to engage learners.

Peace (in the game),

Book Review: Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life

Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life

What is it about middle school? It seems like every book down the pike these days with “middle school” in its title or theme is focused on how terrible, awful, horrendous the experience is (ie, Wimpy Kid series, How to Survive Middle School, etc.). OK, so I admit that my sixth graders have to navigate some difficult social and cultural changes that come as they hit adolescence, and our expectations of them as students is pretty high. But I just put down James Patterson’s Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and I am thankful I am not a character in Patterson’s book nor that I teach in the kind of school that Patterson portrays.


His main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, is a sixth grade mess who tries to stake out some ground by systematically breaking every rule in the book to earn points for his own “game” of points. His family is a mess, too. I wish I could say I liked Rafe a bit more than I did (because I wanted to), but I felt so removed from his character by his attitudes and his voice that I had trouble connecting sympathetically with him. Which is not to say this book is not without its humor. Told in illustrations and text, the novel nicely navigates the inner mind of a character in turmoil (with the stereotypical bully, and both caring and evil teachers, etc.)

What saved the book, for me, is the emotional twists put in towards the end, when we realize a few things about Rafe (which I won’t give away here) and which gives us a more complex character to root for. That element came a little too late for me, but I was glad Patterson did so anyway. I put down the book  hoping Rafe’s future had suddenly gotten a bit brighter, thanks in part to one of his teachers.

Peace (in the muddle),



Comic Book Review: Best Apocalypse Ever (The Underfold)


Most comic collections are just that: collections of some of the better comics from a series as chosen by the writer. This collection of The Underfold webcomic entitled Best Apocalypse Ever is sort of like that, with one outstanding difference. Brian Russell brings us right to the start of his comic — right back to the days when he began writing subversive yet funny comics in the underside of folded paper at his job serving coffee at a church. I know, sounds strange, right?

But if you want to see the genesis of an idea for a comic slowly taking shape, and then transforming over time, this collection — with various written narrative insights by Russell — is the real deal. Which is not say The Underfold isn’t one of the oddest, wackiest comics I have come across in some time (compliment). Between the talking eyeball, the tentacles-instead-of-hands, the breaking of the wall with the reader, and the paper-bag-over-the-face character, The Underfold is an odd assortment of imagination.

From the standpoint of a writer, though, I loved Russell’s ongoing commentary in Best Apocalypse Ever about where his comic started and where it ended up going, and the decisions (sometimes last-minute decisions) that shaped the various narrative and artistic arcs of The Underfold. I felt like we were in a room, drinking beers, and he was giving me an inside look at his creative process, sometimes slipping me a joke on the underside of a napkin.

Peace (in the process),


What We’re Reading Right Now …

Books 2011
We’ve moved into a choice, independent book unit and yesterday, we went around the room in each of my four classes and shared out what we are now reading (I was just finishing up Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson). Since I want many titles in our classroom as possibilities for other readers, I made a list of all of the various books (there was a few common texts: 39 Clues, The Hunger Games, various books from the Percy Jackson series, etc.) and created this Wordle.

I recognized a lot of the titles, but not all. That always makes me curious and sparks some good discussions with students.

Peace (in the tomes),


Book Review: The Son of Neptune

The Son of Neptune

Rick Riordan continues to mine the rich mythology of the Greek and (now) Roman empires for his various Percy Jackson series as The Son of Neptune, book two of The Heroes of Olympus series. brings back the hero from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (spawned by The Lightning Thief). The setting is mostly a Roman camp for demigods, with the backdrop of a Prophecy of Seven that will bring Gods and Demigods together to save the world (later in the series, apparently).

I enjoyed The Son of Neptune as a read-aloud with my seven-year-old son and as in the first book — The Lost Hero — we appreciated the sense of adventure, humor and camaraderie of the three main characters that Riordan focuses in on: Jackson, who has lost his memory but is slowly gaining it back; Frank, the son of Mars with an ancient bloodline and a power he only discovers at the end of the book; and Hazel, the daughter of Pluto, who has come back from the dead and doesn’t care to go back.

Riordan doesn’t really break any new ground here. If you like the Percy Jackson books, you’ll like this one. (In an interesting twist, I was reading Son of Neptune aloud to my son while reading The Lightning Thief as a novel with some of my sixth graders.) If the first books were not your cup of tea, then don’t bother.

My son didn’t mind the rehashing some plot ideas (three friends get Quest, work under deadline, save the world), but I found it a bit old after a while. The strength of the book is the development of the characters, though. Percy is older, a bit more wiser, and we’re not quite in his head as much as we were in the first series. He’s a bit more mysterious, as he grapples to understand his present, his past and his unfolding future. Frank and Hazel’s stories, and their simmering friendship, give a nice depth to their characters, too — my son and I talked a lot about what might happen to these two, and if they would survive.

There are some nice modern touches to the narrative, too. After they succeed on their quest to free Thanatos (the god of death), the god pulls out his iPad to see who is “on the list” for returning to the Underworld (one part of the plot is that the dead don’t stay dead because Thanatos has been held captive by a giant.) I had this amusing visual image of Death with a device. And, thanks to chapter numbers in Roman Numerals, my son now can decipher Roman numbers. Thanks, Mr. Riordan!

My son and I are looking forward to the third book, due next year. I’ll bet you have a few students who would like this book in your class library (or school library).

Peace (in the myth),