Using Data Charts to Gauge Student Writing Growth

Unless you are teaching under a rock, you know that data collection and data analysis is a driving force in education these days. Administrators are asking for data and numbers and charts to document the learning going on in classrooms. I’ve tried to be open-minded about this, and I have been working hard at figuring out what kinds of data collection might be useful for me as a teacher. Last year, I began documenting the writing assessments of my students as a whole to see if our work around open response, in particular, was making a difference in the content and quality of their writing.

This year, in September, after assessing an open response piece of writing (based on a Reading Response rubric that is tied to our district’s Standard-based Reporting system), I began to create a visual graph of where they were as a class. Last week, I assessed another writing sample with the same rubric, and again, created a graph. What I was wondering was: have they made growth since September? (This is all tied to some goals in our Communities of Practice/PLC work, too)

Clearly, they have.
reading response1
reading response2


Notice how there has been a nice shift from the “Progressing towards grade level expectations” to the “Meeting grade level expectations.” There is a still a much-too-large percentage in the “Beginning to show grade level expectations” category, and those are the specific students I need to keep targeting with one-on-one intervention. These kinds of informational data graphs, while fairly simple to construct, are valuable in giving an overview of growth.

Now maybe I see what those administrators are talking about.


Peace (in the data),


Those Muppets; Those Puppets

It is the first time in recent memory that my 13 year old and my 7 year old sons both agreed on a movie that they wanted to see: The Muppets. Now, granted, we are a Muppet household (which doesn’t mean that my third boy is a puppet, by the way) in that we have Muppet DVDs and their humor is sort of ingrained in our DNA (again, we are real people). Part of this is because I have often used The Muppets in my classroom as a way to get at script writing and story development, and character trait work. Plus, um, humor in writing.
(You can even watch last year’s puppet show performances at our Puppet Show Website)

So, I packed up the boys and we all went to the movies yesterday. I guess I have seen enough reviews to know that the latest version isĀ  a sort of return to the old days when it comes to humor, and heart, and witty dialogue, and the reviews were right. There’s a nice combination of fun, adventure and some soul searching that goes on in the movie, and there is a feeling that, well, maybe The Muppets have a chance to get a little foothold back in our culture. The storyline plays with that idea, but for a long time, I wondered if the death of Jim Henson had irretrievably damaged the Muppets as an entertainment empire.

I guess not, thanks to Jason Segal.

One thing I kept grinning at is how many songs were in the movie, and what my 13 year old was thinking. He’s into action movies, and pushing his way into more “advanced comedy” flicks (ie, the movies that make Mom and Dad uncomfortable for him to watch) but he said he liked The Muppets and didn’t mind the songs so much. And since he said next to me, we kept whispering the cameos by actors and actresses that we know from other movies and television shows.

The Muppets is a keeper.

Peace (on a string or two),


Comic Book Review: Not Invented Here/Runtime Error

Not Invented Here strip for 12/1/2011

If you have a geek on your list (and who doesn’t these days?), you might want to consider the collection from the “Not Invented Here” comic by Bill Barnes and Paul Southworth. The setting for this very funny comic is inside a software development firm where terms like “kernals” and “code” and”interface” form the backbone vocabulary of a funny group of programmers, marketing folks and others. I’m no programmer yet even I had plenty of chuckling moments, particularly as technology goes astray.

Check out the back page description:

Behind every great piece of software is a talented, conscientious team of hardworking individuals dedicated to producing the highest quality product using internationally accepted best practices and industry standards.

And then, there are these guys.

One particularly storyline around a social networking site called “MySpice” that seeks to add a fragance element to connecting with friends had me laughing so loud that my sons needed to see over my shoulder what I was reading. That the storyline ends with a tragic accident involving a user and a perfume spray in the eye, not to mention the mangling of some programming code, made it delightful to read as a parody of the direction of sites like MySpace and Facebook (although I think the Spice Girls should had a cameo).

The characters in Not Invented Here are nicely fleshed out — from Desmond, the overweight programmer whose need to improve every line of code he comes across is a fixation of comedy of errors (so to speak); to Owen, a sofware design guy who has no clue what he is doing most of the time and whose stumbling around in the world is a fine comedic relief; Marketroid, the robotic head of marketing whose fingers are all over every product, and not in a good way; and more.

I’m tempted to send my copy of Runtime Error to my programming friend but that would mean getting rid of the book. Nope. I might have to buy a second copy to send him for the holidays.

Runtime Error: Not Invented Here Book 1

Peace (on the funny pages),


Featured in the NWP Annual Report

If you read my blog (thank you), you know how much I support and respect the work of the National Writing Project. In my first year of teaching, I found the local affiliate (Western Massachusetts Writing Project) and took part in the Summer Institute, and I have been influenced by its philosophy and work ever since. I’m not sure how I would have been able to teach as I do with NWP friends and educators to turn to for help and for support and for partnership.

So it was a great honor when last year, the NWP contacted me to ask if I would be willing to let a photographer spend the day in my classroom to gather photos for a feature of me for the NWP Annual Report. I was a bit shocked but of course, I agreed. The NWP had just lost all of its federal funding and it hopes to use the Annual Report to make its case with the federal government for support, and for other grant-funding institutions.

As it turned out, and as I planned, the day the photographer came to hang out with us, we were doing a poetry unit and working on Poems for Two Voice podcasts with our iPod Touch devices. I recently received a few copies of the Annual Report, and passed a few on to our school administration, and I love the photos of my kids in the midst of their learning. And Paul Oh’s kind write-up of me was nicely done, too.

I showed the report to my students the other day, and they were duly impressed with the photos of last year’s students, and with me. But I told them that it was the work they are doing as writers that gets attention. It’s another motivational factor for them — the fact that the spotlight might shine at any moment. So, be ready for it.

Here is a link to the NWP Annual Report (click on 2010 Annual Report link) but I have also embedded it. My kids and I are near the end – pages 19 and 20 with one of my students featured in a full spread on page 2.


Peace (in the report),


Becoming Obsolete

Cartoon: SCHOOL JOB MARKET OBSOLETE (medium) by rmay tagged school,job,market,obsolete,multiplication,table

I want to share this growing list of “Obsolete Skills” that folks are constructing at a wiki site. Inspired by a blog post by Robert Scoble, the site seeks to document things we used to do but no longer know how to do.

Go to Obsolete Skills site


Check out a small list of obsolete skills:

I can imagine using some of this in the classroom by having students go through a modified version of the main list and noting the things they know about or can do, and the things they have never even heard about. (Although I would need to read through them to make sure they were appropriate.) Our Social Studies teacher does some of this already during a unit on Culture. He brings in a turntable and rotary phone and other objects from the, gulp, distant past.

The ones on this list that stuck out for me are:

  • Making a Mix Tape: I know we have playlists and all that on our electronic devices and I love the way we curate our own music. But there was something about passing along a cassette of music to someone else, or getting one from a friend, and being forced to not only listen to the songs but also listen to the songs in order. There was love in the placement of songs. We don’t get that with playlists.
  • Pulling off the Tabs on Aluminum Cans: Bad for the environment, obviously, because every kid who pulled off a tab then tossed it to the ground. Come on, you did it, too. But the act of the removing the tab, and the accompanying sound, is like a soundtrack for summer, sitting on the back porch with a Dr. Pepper. Of course, we also used to stab each other with the tabs. I guess it’s a good thing they were phased out.
  • Inserting Game Cartridge at just the Right Angle: Many hours were spent trying to figure out the exact way the cartridge should fit into the gaming console. I guess it was good engineering practice. But I can remember yelling at my friend because he was clumsy and would bump into the console, killing the game when the cartridge got shifted. As if the game weren’t frustrating enough …
  • Letter Writing: Not to sound like a Luddite, but I do miss the act of writing and sending letters in the mail. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. But messages and emails and online notes have am impersonal nature, no matter how much voice we put into them. Receiving a letter with handwritten thoughts … that is priceless. I still remember writing back and forth to my grandmother as a child, and I wish I had those letters. (You could argue that if we had done is via computer, they would be backed up). There was unexpected pleasure in the arrival of the letter that you don’t get from an inbox alert.
  • The Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature: You know you are an information geek when you miss this dinosaur. But when I was growing up, it was the mainstay of our libraries for searching for information. I used to periodically (pun!) scan through it just to see what was in there. It was a confusing tome of references. I don’t miss it on a practical level (I love search) but I do miss it because it represented the long hours I spent in school and town libraries, just wandering around. My boys don’t do that. I should get them one of these for the holidays …

What about you? What do you deem obsolete?

Peace (in the past),


Considering MOOCs and the Future of Learning

Earlier this fall, I saw a call by Bud Hunt to join a class at P2PU, which is a space for open courses. Bud’s class was centered around writing and the Common Core standards. I jumped at the chance not only to explore the Common Core with the writing focus, but also to figure out what a Massively Online Open Course (or MOOC) was all about. I found it fascinating that free courses are available, although what we also found is that while a lot of people join at the start, only a few make it to the end. It’s all driven by intrinsic motivation, by the desire to learn, and not because you paid a few hundred dollars to go to class.

Bud structured the class with various entry paths — from discussions, and activities, and webinars each week. We also were tasked with designing a lesson plan or project, or redesigning an existing one, with the new frameworks in mind. (I did mine on an imaginary land brochure project. I’ll share that revamped lesson plan on another day).

It was engaging work, picking apart the writing strand of the Common Core and then reflecting on what it is all about with other folks. We talked about the strengths (connections to technology, complexity of thinking, connections to content areas, etc.) and weaknesses (shift from narrative writing, etc.) I found the whole process of the course incredibly valuable as our state now has new curriculum standards based on the Common Core and our school district is revamping our curriculum to meet the new state standards. Also, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is emerging as a leader in curriculum design around the Common Core in our region.

One fascinating thing about P2PU is that anyone can start a course.

If you go to their homepage, you can see the wide variety of offerings — from computer programming to writing poetry to learning how to draw. You could leverage that openness of the site for more online groups and classes, although the connection to graduate credits and professional development advancement is tenuous right now, and depends a lot on the state in which you live. Another interesting element is that all of the classes offered at P2PU, and at most MOOC sites, become “modules” that anyone can then borrow, adapt and re-use for their own purposes.

Think about that. As time moves on, there will be entire databases of learning packets that organizations, such as the National Writing Project, might be able to use for online professional development, even as your own expertise gets meshed into the overall architecture of learning. I suppose there will be concerns about “ownership” of ideas and whatnot, but I think this is an interesting shift around learning possibilities.

The other night, I joined some other teachers on Teachers Teaching Teachers to chat about MOOCs and the online learning experience. Here is the video of the chat we had, posted by TTT host Paul Allison.


Peace (in the open),


Crash! Boom! Bang! (Writing with Comics)

onomatopoeia comic10
We’re shifting into Figurative Language techniques as we move towards poetry — a bit earlier this year for us for scheduling reasons. The other day, we tackled onomatopoeia (the hardest word to spell when your type fast) by using comics as our jumping off point. We began with a Wordle list that I generated of various sound effects.
sound effects

After talking about the use of sound effect words in comics and its use as an art form to denote action and sound on a flat page, and then looking at a comic page in which onomatopoeia was used, students then had the task of creating their own comic strip about whatever they wanted, using at least five examples of onomatopoeia. They did a nice job with their comics, and you could have heard a pin drop when they were working on them, too. They seemed surprised that we were doing comics for writing class. But any chance to give them a taste of some alternative form of writing and reading is something worth gravitating to. Don’t dismiss comics as juvenile literacy. There’s a lot going on in those frames.
See some of the other comics.

Oh, we also watched the short cartoon from the Dr. Seuss story, Gerald McBoing Boing (the boy who doesn’t speak words). The kids loved the video, even though the cartoon is pretty dated. But the show’s art is something I love — it is so very different from any other cartoon, particularly the Looney Toons of the same era. And since Gerald talks in sound effects, it is a perfect example of onomatopoeia. I have the DVD but, no surprise, you can find it online, too.

Peace (in the comic frames),