Book Review: Belly Up

It was the cover that caught my eye.

A blue hippo, dead, floating on some water. (I knew it was dead because of the X on its eyes). The back cover showed the hippo’s big blue butt. I was hooked. I didn’t pick up Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs at the time I saw it in the bookstore, but I noticed how close it was to the Carl Hiaason display, and I couldn’t help notice how similar the cover art seemed to be to Hiaason books. Yeah, I thought, they are trying to ride some marketing coattails here.

Later, though, I kept thinking of the dead hippo. I ordered Belly Up, knowing in the back of my mind how many of my students loved reading Flush. This might be another book to press into their hands. I was not disappointed.

Belly Up is a sort of Hiaason-inspired story arc, with a 12 year old kid (Teddy) who lives in an animal park called FunJungle trying to solve the murder of the ornery and violent Henry the Hippo (the park mascot who fires poop at anyone and everyone) and uncovering some other nefarious deeds being done by some odd characters who inhabit this story.

Gibbs packs a lot of adventure and humor into the book, and I spent a lot of time puzzling over the “who done it” part of the story. The story unfolds at a quick pace, too. Teddy is a likeable character, and his first person voice as narrator is nicely done. Teddy is caring but full of smart-aleck observations about adults. He also meets Summer, the daughter of the FunJungle park, but he wonders about her motivation to uncover the truth about the murder of the hippo. There are interesting narrative detours into the marketing of a park like FunJungle and the impact of pop culture overexposure (the press follow Summer everywhere).

Gibbs peels the cover back on the inner workings of the animal park (including some fun maps in the inside covers). I thoroughly enjoyed the ride with Belly Up, particularly as I was reading it while awaiting Hiaason’s new book, Chomp (which arrived last week and promptly disappeared into my middle son’s room. He proclaims it the “best” Hiaason book yet.)

Peace (never goes belly up),


Slice of Life: The Ms. Frizzle Incident

I blame Ms. Frizzle.

My first grade son got the idea for his school’s Science Fair (which had more than 100 student projects) from reading one of the Magic School Bus books. It’s the story about rainbows and colors, and pinball machines. In the book, the kids divide up the color spectrum using a prism and a burst of light in order to escape the pinball machine they are stuck inside. My son wanted to recreate that for a display about light and color.

That idea sounded great to my wife and I. We were thrilled he wanted to partake in the Science Fair. His older brothers had had no interest at all, for some reason. My wife worked with him to get his display put together, went out to the local science store to buy a prism, and coordinated the activity, although he did much of the work (you can see that is not the case with some of the displays but I won’t get into that).

The problem was … the light through the prism didn’t quite work.

Maybe we were expecting too much.  We had this vision of a lovely rainbow shooting out of the prism and shining onto the whiteboard. That’s how the Magic School Bus kids and Ms. Frizzle did it. (What? Books aren’t real?) Instead, it took a  lot of twisting of the prism and manipulating of the light to finally create a tiny little teeny rainbow. Talk about letdowns.

You know what, though? My son didn’t care. He loved seeing the color spectrum he created. And the kids who came to his display? They didn’t care, either. They twisted and turned that flashlight and prism and then uttered “cool” when a little rainbow finally appeared. And maybe they learned a thing or two about light and color. Who knows. It was mayhem in the school cafeteria with all of those projects and all of those kids and all of those family members.


I was happy to leave and gulp down some fresh air, and then my son, wife and I stood and stared at the stars for a few minutes. It was a beautiful moment. Lights were all around us, twinkling up in the sky. Science and discovery really is all around you. Maybe that Ms. Frizzle really does know a thing or two about the world.

Peace (and thanks for visiting all this month with Slice of Life),

More Facebook Follow-Up: Reaction from Parents

I’m in the third day of writing about an event at our school that began on Facebook and spilled into our school. (See the first post about the event and then the second post about my note to families). Yesterday, I wrote about the informational email I wrote that we sent home to all of our sixth grade parents. So far, the response from families back to us has been overwhelmingly positive, thanking us for the guidance and the resource links to help them guide their children in the networking space.

Here are a few comments that parents sent to us:

“…. although I did not  agree with Facebook, my husband and I talked and I allowed it with stipulations.  My husband and I are friends with him on Facebook  but  more than that, 13 or not, it is so important to not only be friended but also to have their username AND password. This way you can see  what’s posted to people you are not friends with.”

“Thank you for sending out this very insightful message, and thank you for looking out for our children.  I feel very strongly about children and social websites and I am grateful to you, Mr. Hodgson and the sixth grade team for addressing this issue.”

“We are very strict about media in our family, including tv and computer usage; (our child) certainly is not ready to be surfing the web or using social media outlets, but I realize that others may not see the threat to innocence…”

There were a few more simple “thank yous,” too. My hope with the note home is that we would hit a nerve with families and allow them a reason to get proactive with their children in the online spaces they inhabit. My wife and I are doing the same thing at home right now with our son (luckily, no problems) and so I understand how difficult it can be, and time consuming, too, but also, crucially important.

Check out this quote that came through my RSS reader this morning. Does it not have implications for this entire discussion and issue?

Words are to be taken seriously. I try to take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion. I’ve seen them doing it. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges. I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure. I try not to be careless about what I utter, write, sing. I’m careful about what I give voice to.


Peace (in this space and beyond),




Slice of Life: I am Mr. Snow

We’re just under a week from our annual Quidditch Tournament and the artwork frenzy has taken hold. We are working on huge banner posters for our team (Permafrost) and every student is hard at work, finishing up their T-Shirt art projects. Yesterday, I realized that my own T-Shirt was still an empty canvas, so I asked a few students to get to work on it.

“What’s your number?” one asked me. Each student has an invented team number on the back of their shirt, just like real sports.

“Whatever you want it to be,” I replied.

“What do you want for a nickname?” another inquired. They all invent nicknames for themselves, and then paint it across the back of their shirts, above their numbers.

“Whatever you want to call me … just please be nice,” I pleaded.

They smiled at me — not mischievously but thoughtfully — and then a bunch of students gathered around, calling out possible nicknames for me. They ended up with “Mr. Snow” (inspired by the Snow Miser, I think, so that had me thinking, hmmmm) and then the girls got to work on my shirt. It’s lovely and beautiful, and best of all — it’s created by them.

Mr H tshirt

Peace (on the shirt),


Slice of Life: Posting (Secret, Sticky) Poems


No one knows who is doing it. But it’s me. I am one the sneaking around our hallway, posting sticky notes with poems on them, and creating a sort of graffiti display of poetry in an empty display case. I’ve been watching the kids slow down, take a look and wonder who it is who is putting those small poems in the large case.

It all began when I was doing a Scholastic book order a few weeks ago. I saw this collection called Post This Poem (which, frustratingly, I cannot find online anywhere, so I can’t share a link with you.). I had some bonus points from our recent orders. Why not? It’s a cool little thing. One hundred poems and stanzas of longer poems on colorful post-it notes.
Post a Poem

Each morning this week, I have been adding a few more poems in the morning before school starts. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and many others now sharing the hallways with our students.


Don’t tell anyone. It will be our little poetic secret.

Peace (in the poems),


The Facebook Fracas Follow-up: Dear Parents

Yesterday, I wrote about an incident with my students that began on Facebook and filtered onto the recess grounds. I have been quite humbled by the number of responses that readers left and it shows how difficult it is for us teachers to grapple with the power of social media in the lives our students. There is only so much we can control, only so much we can teach.

(And I should add an ancillary note: I am not an opponent of Facebook because it allows kids to speak trash that leads to larger things in the real world. That can happen on any online site, and as one commenter reminded me, it can happen in the neighborhood, offline, too, or on the bus on the way home. I am an opponent of Facebook because of severe privacy concerns and who owns the content put there — not you. Facebook owns it. And sells it.)

Anyway, I want to make sure parents and families have information about how to help their children in social media sites, too. Part of educating our students about social media is also educating our parents, and providing some framework for their role in it all. They can’t be bystanders. It occurred to us, after talking to a parent yesterday, that most likely many of our parents do not monitor their children’s FB accounts and may not be fully aware of the reasons for doing so.

In an effort to help them along, and to remind them of the “13 year old” age restriction that my students are clearly in violation of, we are sending this email note home to all of our sixth grade families. (In a survey I did a few weeks ago, 40 percent of my sixth grasde students said they have a Facebook account.) You’ll note that I urge parents to hold off on Facebook with their children if they are not already on the site. I thought about suggesting they delete FB altogether for their children, but that seemed to be pushing it a bit too far. My role is a teacher, not another parent.

Dear parents,
As some of you may know, sixth graders in Mr. Hodgson’s ELA class just finished up a comprehensive unit around Digital Life. In class and in activities, students learned about how to protect their online reputation, how to guard against cyberbullying activities (and what to do if it happens), how to protect your privacy and more. One thing that emerged from discussions is the high use of Facebook among Norris sixth graders, and also, a general lack of their understanding of how to effectively and positively use social networking. It should be noted that Facebook and other sites have a 13-year and older policy, which is based on some federal guidelines around young people and technology. The 13-year-old mark is considered a time when young people are developmentally ready for using social networking sites because they can better grasp how their writing and sharing impacts their lives and others.
But we also know the reality.
We want to share this resource with parents and families around how to best monitor the use of Facebook in young people and how to best support your children if they are on the site. We hope the resources might be helpful for you and your family. Much research has shown that when parents are involved and monitoring the spaces where young people are involved with, the experiences are mostly positive. If your child is on Facebook, we suggest you “friend” them and be part of their inner circle. If they are not on Facebook, we suggest you consider waiting a few years.
The Parents Guide to Facebook
The CommonSense Media Guide for Parents to Facebook
The Sixth Grade Team

I’d be curious to know if you have been in a similar situation (involving Facebook and/or other social media) and what steps you have taken to address the issue with families. Any advice? Suggestions?

Peace (in words and deeds),


Slice of Life: Of Facebook, Fighting and Frustration

I’m disappointed to say that there was a fight yesterday at our school between two boys. These students are two boys, from different classes, whom I would never have thought would square off at recess and throw punches. They did. I won’t get into some of the reason behind the altercation except to note that it began with negative remarks on one of the boy’s Facebook pages and those words spilled over into our school.

More than a few things frustrate me about this situation:

  • I wish the two boys had come to me, or another teacher, to help resolve the issue. I can see a path to resolution that they could not see, apparently;
  • I wish the parents of my sixth grade students would not allow Facebook at all (they are not yet 13, the age of registration at FB). I worry that much of their time on FB is unmonitored and unchecked. They’re not yet mature enough for that. In fact, they should not even be on FB at all yet, in my opinion (and that of FB, too);
  • I feel a bit right now that all of my work with the classes around using social media spaces for the positive, and not the negative, fell on deaf ears with these two boys. Just thinking of how we spent weeks working around Digital Life, and all of our conversations and activities, and work around this issue … led to naught when the boys were in the situation to use that knowledge;
  • I’m thinking of how to talk to my class today about the situation, to avoid the class/friends versus class/friends standoff. We don’t want this one incident shifting gears into something larger;
  • I’m just disappointed in both of my students right now for their actions.

I won’t say that Facebook is the culprit here, because it isn’t. But it certainly opened the road for trash talking that led to something more serious. I wonder if the parents are actively monitoring their children’s Facebook pages (are they “friends”? do they even know their child has a FB account?).

Finally, I wonder if it is worth an email home to our parents, reminding them about social networking spaces, and the developmental issues of 11-year-olds in online environments (“I can say what I want!”). Perhaps parents need some educating, too. They were certainly appreciative when I shared our Digital Life unit at parent-teacher conferences. I’ll be chatting to my colleagues about this today, trying to sort it out, trying to put out the fires left over from the incident, and trying to remind my kids about responsibility.

I was going to write my slice today about the start of Little League baseball season, and the first practice last night in the cold wind, but I couldn’t get my heart into it. I have those two boys on my mind.

Peace (on the page),

Thinking of PARCC and the Common Core

Have you been following Alice Mercer’s posts about the Common Core? No? You should. Alice has been insightful as she scrutinizes the Common Core from her home/teaching base in California and it well worth your time to read what she has to say and contribute to the conversations. Today, she used the Reading Wars analogy as she dove into the ELA frameworks. Yesterday, she was mulling over the Math frameworks.

Go on. Visit Alice. I’ll wait.


Alice has been asking bloggers to do more writing around the Common Core — to get more teaching voices into the mix. I’ve been doing that here an there over the past year or so (see my posts) and I have a Diigo group where I have been collecting information about the Common Core shift (see Diigo Group). My state has fully embraced the Common Core and so, we are right now in the midst of a “transition year” that almost no district is ready for. But the new assessments are on the horizon. The question is, what will those look like?

Well, it is still too early to say, but since our state of Massachusetts is the lead in the PARCC Model, there are some hints. (PARCC: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)

These two screenshots come from a webinar about the PARCC as it is now being developed. Essentially, the writers of the assessment are assuming that we will be teaching four main inquiry/research units through the year. One of those will emerge as the one that gets assessed by the PARCC model. Notice again the emphasis on argumentative and expository writing, and less on narrative, and also how informational text is a big part of the reading (moving away from novels at the center of reading).

Parcc ELA Content Frameworks
PARCC Assessment Model

(In some writing guidelines from the PARCC, it notes that in grades 6-8, there should be 35 percent argument writing, 35 percent expository writing, and 30 percent narrative. That shifts to 40/40/20 in the high school grades.)

Tom Hoffman, who has been a thoughtful and vocal critic of Common Core ever since it was first proposed, made a good point at Alice’s blog this morning. He notes, “And everything before the tests come out is just prelude.” He’s right. Until we know the assessment, most teachers are not diving in to find the strengths and weaknesses of the new standards, nor are they making adjustments and shifts needed (in my experience in working with teachers).

I don’t see myself as an opponent or advocate of the Common Core. I think an overall weakness of expectations in many states, and failures in too many districts, have put us all in this position now. The fact is, too many of our kids were graduating without the skills they need for a fruitful life, or not graduating at all. To say otherwise is to ignore the reality. As a teacher, I am trying my best to understand the ramifications of the Common Core, and PARCC, and I suggest that we all be doing the same. And if you blog, share out your thinking. Please. We need more voices, more strategies, more connections with other teachers.

As Alice notes, the loudest voices right now seem to be people like David Coleman, who helped develop the standards and is showcasing so-called “exemplar lessons” that may not jibe with your own teaching practice. But you and I both know that school administrators will be looking for those pre-packaged curriculum units that meet the Common Core (it’s easier than spending time developing your own), and they will be jamming those lessons down our throats, if we are not careful and thoughtful, and full of our own advocacy.

Peace (in and out of the core),


Slice of Life: New Literacies Consulting

Yesterday after school, I dashed to my car and drove to another school district in the area, where I am beginning to do some consulting work around the integration of technology and New Literacies ideas in an elementary school setting (this is all through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project). This district received an Innovation Grant from our state and is doing inquiry around how they can better use technology for student engagement and learning.

I was brought in yesterday to chat with a committee of teachers, parents, School Committee members, and the principal about the venture. I’ll also be spending an entire day there in late April, doing some demonstrations in classrooms and then working with the staff in the afternoon. It’s exciting to be part of this school’s push forward, and I hope I can help them do it in a meaningful way.

Our meeting yesterday was pretty informal. I presented some of my views around technology:

  • Helping student make the shift from consumers of media to creators of content
  • Using the backwards design model so that technology is just a tool to get where we need to be, not the focus of the instruction itself
  • Making sure teachers have time to play and investigate and reflect on technologies in a safe, nurturing community
  • Moving away from the isolated Computer Lab model to a more integrated model of technology right in the classroom
  • Valuing the technology literacies of students outside of school
  • Understanding that online communities provide important professional development opportunities
  • Reaching the “middle group” of teachers who are ready to make a shift, but need a path forward

One of my suggestions is that the school consider a “theme” for its move forward, and so we talked a lot about digital storytelling and its power to use voice, image, multimedia and writing across various age levels. My demonstrations will focus on digital storytelling in the various grades, although it will be only a taste (in a limited time).

In the meeting, there were questions around a lot of topics already, including:

  • Differentiated instruction and reaching all students with technology
  • The potential value of 1-to-1 computing environments
  • Ways to consider digital citizenship as part of an instructional unit
  • How technology can create pockets of collaboration
  • The potential of publishing for students
  • How does an ICT position (the lab teacher) transform into a technology coach position
  • How technology use might look different in the lower grade levels (and what that might look like)

I have to admit, I felt pretty honored and humbled to have been invited into this role. While I know I do a lot with technology with my students, and I am invited to give PD at various times for other districts, I’d love to see this consultant gig emerge into a partnership with this school where I can provide resources, advice and learning experiences for the teachers there in a way that makes sense for them. I want to value their school culture in our work. I see the role of consultant in this way as more of a partner, and guide, than the “expert.” My hope is to learn from them, as they learn from me.

Peace (in the sharing),



Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

So, every blogger in the universe is probably reviewing (or has already reviewed) The Hunger Games movie. I’ll keep it short here.

I’ve only read the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, so my “bigger picture” of the narrative is fairly limited. I did enjoy the book (but found it a bit violent, just like her Gregor the Overlander books) and I enjoyed the movie, too. I took my 11 year old son with me to the packed theater on the Sunday afternoon matinee. He is an avid reader, but admitted that he could not get “into” the book, The Hunger Games.

“I am only one of four kids in our whole class who hasn’t read it,” he admitted.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, as I recall it. It was not like The LIghtning Thief, where we walked out of the theater shaking our heads at the changes that had been made and wondering, why in the world would they do that? I think the casting in The Hunger Games was nicely done. I did feel an emotional connection with Katniss, and my son and I were both shattered to watch Rue die. We both jumped out of our seats when those genetic dogs jumped out of the dark, too, even though we knew it was coming. The two hours and 20 minutes did not seem like a lifetime in our seats. We were hooked right from the start.

The one thing I miss from the book was getting inside the head of Katniss, as she gets conflicted feelings about the two boys: the one she left behind and the one she needs to survive. I also missed her simmering anger at the Games itself, and how she refuses to be a pawn, even though — in the end — she is. For me, those elements of Katniss are what made the book special. Those inner dialogue and inner conflicts are hard to translate into the big screen, I know. But it gave a certain flatness to Katniss in the movie.

Overall, though, The Hunger Games movie is a hearty thumbs up — from one who has read the book (me) and one who hasn’t (my son). I wonder if seeing the movie might get him interested again …

Peace (in the games),