Other Than Peace and Love, Books are Holiday Treasures

One one hand, I am difficult to shop for in the holiday season. I don’t need much. I have a beautiful family and more stuff than I need. On the other hand, I do love books. So I found a few paper treasures with my name on it yesterday (and gave out my fair share, too). The problem with receiving so many cool books at once is not just where to begin, but how to finish the book already underway (I am reading At Home by Bill Bryson) so that I can get to the pile of books that await me.

Here is what is in the personal book queue (aka, the pile of books on my bedside table):

The Best American Nonrequired Reading

The Best Non-Required Reading of 2011. This series remains my stalwart favorite, and I just read the introduction by Dave Eggers (loved it) and Guillermo del Toro, who not only makes interest films but also keeps an entire house just for his books. That’s right. He has a house as a personal library. His intro really captures the love of reading and why books matter. And I love that this collection is culled by high school students, and that the writing comes from traditional and non-traditional sources.

The Best American Short Stories of 2011. Another great collection, and one which I look forward to reading each year. It turns out I have a bunch of these “best of …” that I read throughout the year (the technology stories one is always a keeper, too). I’m a sucker for the collections, I guess.

Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson. I guess this has become required reading, and my two older sons said they might read it, too. I’ve read biographies of Jobs before and found them interesting. I’ll see how this one holds up too, given all the praise it seems to be getting (or is that because Jobs is dead?). I’m all for what Apple has done for design and ease, but I am a little leery of the Cult of Steve that seems to have been built around him.

I walked With Giants, an autobiography of Jimmy Heath, is a nice surprise. My dad gave it to me. Heath, the famous jazz saxophonist, had a celebrated life in the world of jazz, and I know his life story is interesting, beginning with his role as the “Little Bird,” in the shadows of Charlie Parker. Life stories of musicians always fascinate me.











And my own purchase for myself: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I know his writing a bit, but not much, but the rave reviews of his essays has me ready to jump in.

What are you reading?

Peace (in the pages),



So Long, Harry Potter

I can’t believe we finally got to the end of the Harry Potter series. Oh, I read them all myself years ago as soon as they came out (but after all the kids in the line in front of us got their copies …I didn’t elbow anyone out of the way). But the thing with having your own kids is … you can revisit books as read-alouds and rediscover (sorry) the magic of what first drew you in. So, for the past year or so, my seven year old son and I have been completely immersed in the world of Harry Potter, and last night, we came to the last word on the last page of the last book. Here is my son’s reaction:


Uh, yes.

What I loved about the read-aloud experience, other than how close it brought me to my child in the shared literary experience, is how I could see parts of the story that I had long since forgotten as a reader myself. The entire last book — The Deathly Hallows — is much darker than I remembered, and also, much more complex than I remembered, too. Rowling’s writing certainly improved as the series went on, which is a relief when you are faced with reading aloud seven very large books. The secrets and plans and puzzle of who owns what and why …. OK, so that is still a bit confusing, but I loved how my son and I kept stopping, as I asked him what he thought and he asked me why something had happened. You could see the wheels turning in his head as Harry discovered the “truth” of the situation and all of the pieces that were set in motion in earlier books. We both held back tears when Dobby died, and we expressed anger when Dumbledore was killed, and then we scratched out heads when we realized it was all part of a larger plan.

And so, I say, So Long Harry Potter.

You’ve been in our lives like a faithful companion for the past year or more, and I honestly don’t foresee myself reading the Harry Potter series for a third time. I know: never say never. But I can imagine my son coming back to the books when he is a little older, and maybe, just maybe, he will find himself revisiting Hogwarts as an adult, too, with his own child by his side as he rediscovers the boy living inside the cupboard at 4 Privet Drive . And he may well remember the sweet snuggling times we two readers had as we followed Harry Potter on his adventures into the magical world, right to the very end of the tale.

Peace (with Potter),


A Look at our Student Video Game Showcase

We headed off into the holidays with style yesterday as all of my sixth graders showcased their video games with peers from other classes in a an effort to gather more peer review responses and … well … play video games before our holiday break. First, we set up tables in our cafeteria, and created “gaming stations” (ie, laptops), and while a game developer looked on, users came and played. Then, the player moved on to other games. Finally, they all switched roles, so that developers became players, etc.

Meanwhile, in another room, students were podcasting their Video Game Review projects with our iPod Touches. I’ve just started looking at the persuasive writing assignment and they seem pretty well done. I’m excited because not only do they get to demonstrate expertise in a video game, but we are doing this in conjunction with two other classes. We’re going to find a way to share the reviews out together. And the owner of a game review website — Gametrender — has generously offered to publish some of my students’ reviews on his space, giving them an authentic publishing experience.

Our principal and vice-principal both wandered into the Game Showcase, and both noticed just how incredibly engaged every single student was in the event. My principal, who is very supportive of technology as a tool for learning experiences, and I chatted about the writing components that were embedded in the game design project, and then he wandered off to watch some podcasting on the iPods in action. (I realized: I should have interviewed him with my video camera!)

Peace (in the world),


Video Game Design: Student Survey Results

As we move towards the end(?) of our game design unit with a Game Showcase today (which will mix up classes to play their games and do some podcasting activities), we continue to have our young designers reflect on the experience. They took an online reflective survey the other day as a way for us to gauge where they are with their project, and their impressions of using game design in the classroom. We also asked them to write out some advice for other teachers who might be considering the concept of gaming in the classroom. They were quite thoughtful, and most were supportive of the idea. A few said that time would be better spent outside in the fresh air than on a computer, and another asked if we could get back to creative writing (we will!!).

Check it out:


Peace (in the reflective stance),


Letting My Kids Decorate ‘My Head’

Our school’s Community Service Club held a Hat Day/Decorate Your Head Day event yesterday to raise money for our Senior Citizen Center (whose old furniture got moldy when put into storage). The event raised hundreds of dollars. To spark some fun, I put an image of myself up on the interactive board and told my students to decorate my head. They sure did. We had a lot of laughs with this quick activity.
Mr H head no art
mr h's head art

Peace (in my head),


My Troubles with Technology

I suppose any reader of this space knows that I can come across as a cheerleader for the ways that technology can be used to transform the possibilities of composition and publishing for young people. But not everything is all rosy all the time. I admit that I am lucky to work in a school where the administration understands the power of technology, and invests as much as it can in equipment, but we still run into all sorts of hurdles.

I regularly use the Dell PC Cart that is housed in my classroom (convenient!) and leave the MAC carts for other parts of the building, particularly for my colleagues in the younger grades. But the Dell Cart is now going on six years old. I remind my students that the computers they are using were brought into the school when they were in kindergarten. That opens up a few eyes. And softens the complaints of processing speed and error messages.

I do a lot to keep the cart running because I don’t want the technology to interfere with the learning. I am not always successful and if often feels like I spend some days in a wrestling match with technology, both of us determined to conquer the other. So far, I am winning. I think. But every day is a new battle, and I need to be light on my feet. It also makes clear, though, why so many teachers give up on technology when the glitches take place, or the computer won’t start, of whatever. It can be exhausting.

Here are just some of the problems that I regularly run into:

  • Six-year-old PC laptops. ‘Nuff said. This would not be as big an issue if they were Macs (says the former PC evangelist);
  • Wireless data flow. When 21 laptops are streaming a heavy-duty site (like Glogster, or Voicethread, or Gamestar Mechanic), the wireless system often gags, and loading of webpages slows to a crawl;
  • The batteries on our laptops are deteriorating … I can barely make it through one hour-long class, and I have four hour-long classes each day. I do a lot of juggling at the end of class and at the start of class to leave a window open for recharging. It does give me time for mini-lessons, but sometimes I am just dancing around in the front of the room, praying for more time;
  • Updates clog up the system, too. Between Windows XP updates, Firefox updates, anti-virus updates, the flow of data coming through the air and into the laptops makes me wonder we don’t see the bits and bytes flying before our eyes. And since that happens in the background, the laptops can crawl at times, and then suddenly, the students are confronted with a shut-down/update;
  • Our Internet service is pretty stable but the other day, we lost it for about four hours, and that impacted an entire day of game design.

I should point out that the students roll with it. While they expect speed and instant connectivity with equipment these days, they mostly complain, ask for help and then wait out the fixes with patience. Maybe more patience that I show at times. But together, we use what we got, and we keep pushing the equipment to the edge of what it can do. We don’t give up. Well, at least most of the time.

Peace (in the gripe session),


What Peer Review of Student Video Games Looked Like

We spent part of our time yesterday allowing classmates an opportunity to play each other’s games, and then offering up a critique of the gameplay and game design for the developer. I provided a graphic organizer to keep their attention focused on the elements we have been discussing: story, science themes, gameplay, design, etc. As I wandered the room, I took a few notes of the conversations taking place. Most were very positive, and supportive.

Here is a bit of what I heard (as a former reporter, I often jot down notes when my class is doing something interesting):

“Who wants to try to my game? Anyone?”
“I do.”
“Me, too.”

“This is so hard. Why did you make it so hard?”
“It’s not hard. I can do it.”
“You made the game. Of course, you can do it.”
“Here, let me show you ..”

“I like that. How did you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Find that color for the background. It’s perfect for inside the volcano. I want that background, too.”
“It’s in the Quest. You need to earn it. It’s in the xxx level.”
“I’m not that far. Darn.”
“How far are you? I can help you get there. Come on.”

“That was … easy.”
“Too easy?”
“I thought it would a challenge. Why was it easy?”
“You just had to run fast. I ran fast.”
“Oh. Yeah.”

“I wonder if anyone on Gamestar will play my game.”
“Probably. Did you publish it yet?”
“No. But I will.”
“You should. You definitely should.”

In some ways, the casual conversations as the developer looked over the shoulder of the player was more valuable than the written feedback, but I am determined to keep writing at the center of this project. Here are two samples of student feedback forms, which pretty much capture the essence of many of the peer review ideas of the day.
Student Game Design Peer Review
Student Game Design Peer Review0002
Peace (in the feedback loop),


Student Voices: Game Development and Gamestar Mechanic

I continue to train my video on a few of my students as we move through the Science-based Game Design Unit. I am curious about what they think and what they are experiencing. The other day day, one student asked “Why are we making video games anyway?” and so I launched again into the rationale: the information and visual literacy, the connections to the writing process, the engagement with technology in a way that connects to what they often do outside of school, etc. I think they wanted a simpler answer (it’s cool!) but I was ready for it, mainly because if my principal or superintendent or a parent asks, I want to be ready for them, too.

In that regard, this reflective space on the blog has been helpful to me. And I appreciate the comments that some of you have been leaving. I am sure some of you are scratching you heads over this entire unit but it does have many solid connections to the science and language arts curriculum, particularly if you consider it in light of the Common Core (which our state has adopted). I am going to try to connect it more solidly to our state curriculum one of these days.

Anyway, here are two of my students, talking about the development of their video game project, their early prototypes of games, and their impressions of Gamestar Mechanic. (And should you think this is just cheerleading for Gamestar, I’ve had  a few students tell that they wish Gamestar were more advanced, and had more options, and they suggested we move into some programming language for, as one put it, “real game design.” Sorry, kid, that’s beyond me right now.)


Peace (in the games),


Connecting the “Make Movement” with Technical Writing

Check out this video documentary of some friends at the Prairie Lands Writing Project (in Missouri) as they use the concepts around the “Make Movement” (build it yourself) and technical writing to pursue connections to the curriculum (Common Core, in particular) around informational writing.

Two years ago, I took part in a National Writing Project session similar to this one (I demonstrated stopmotion animation) and it was a pretty interesting experience, but I have not yet been able to make that leap to the classroom. Documentaries like this one help keep the idea in mind — that our students have talents that we often don’t know about, that they can use that expertise to teach others, and that literacy connections abound in those ideas.

Thanks to the Prairie Lands folks for sharing out their project!

Peace (on the Make),


A Tour Around the Room (While Gaming Goes On)

I wandered around the other day, capturing some video of my students working on storyboards and creating video games.  This is part of a larger documentary project about using video game design in the classroom. They love to work in the dark and they love to use the Interactive Board to show off their games, and to build them with the pen on the large screen. (You can’t play it on the big screen because Gamestar Mechanic games are played with the keyboard arrows, not the mouse)

Peace (in the sharing),