Video Slice of Life: The River Art Installation Project

We found our way back to the river again yesterday. This time, my 14-year-old son came along and he brought his iPod so that he could video some footage of the log with all of the found objects from the river that a neighbor has been creating (I wrote about this the other day although now there is a “guest box” where people can leave notes, so I left a poem).

Suddenly, my son got inspired. He stuck a large stick in the ground, took off his shoes and waded out to a little island to gather bricks. He then started to create his own art project.

We mostly watched him at work, although my wife and younger son helped him collect the red bricks (which are everywhere, remnants of the Great Flood decades ago that swept through the area, killing more than 50 people) and white stones and pottery and rocks. The little one kept asking “What are you building?” and the older one kept replying, “I don’t know yet.”

But build he did.

He then came home, downloaded a video editing app on his iPod, edited his footage and uploaded it into his YouTube account, connecting the video to his new Facebook account, too. (ahh, the modern childhood). I noticed this morning that his video invites others to come to the river, too, to add to the natural art installation now emerging. (His art is the last image of the bricks in a circle around the branch stuck in the ground)

If you are in our neck of the woods, feel free to pick up some river glass or brick shards and add it to the artwork. Imagination is the only thing required.

Peace (by the river),


The Issue of Lurking Versus Listening

I’ve been taking part in an online study group at the P2PU Open Course site with some National Writing Project friends. The discussion group is centered around the theme of writing in a digital age (with leaders Troy Hicks, Christina Cantrill and Katherine Frank). We’re nearing the end of things, and so some of us are reflecting a bit (a stalwart activity of any NWP event) on where we might go from here with some inquiry work.

I had posted a bit about how I was considering the model of the study group for a year-long inquiry theme at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project that will begin in September and be the thread of discussions throughout the year. I pointed out the difficulty in online spaces to make sure everyone is involved. In the study group, there are a bunch of people just reading and following but not writing. In other words, there are many more observers in our study group than there are writers.

How do we pull those all of those folks into the activities and get their voices heard so that a select few don’t take command of the discussions because they have the loudest voices, I wondered? (And I know I am one of those loud voices.)

This is an excerpt from what I wrote:

On a “bigger picture” note, this study group also reminds me that a lot of people may be following the discussions here but not participating. I’m not judging because this is a part of online communities across various platforms and there are many factors that go into why a person “lurks” or participates. There are lots of reader; fewer writers. The question remains of how to get more folks involved as active participants in activities (thinking now of how our WMWP inquiry work might learn from the interactions here). This pondering parallels with my philosophies that I have for my students — shifting them from passive consumers of media into active creators of it, and giving them agency with the technology.

Certainly, having specific, do-able activities is part of the solution, and also, having some playfulness in the community is a key component, too. If it’s too much like work, then no one is going to spend time doing it. We do enough of that during the day. Finding some balance between thoughtful inquiry, meaningful play and positive connections is the way to build an online community.

One of my study group colleagues responded:

… what drew me immediately to my computer this morning was the light suggestion that those of us who don’t participate with the community are “lurkers.” I know that Kevin didn’t mean this in a disparaging way — and perhaps his use of the term as strategic (It certainly got me typing).  Just as we create classrooms where all students participate and contribute, do we also need to create these online spaces where the same kind of participation takes place? (I think so). And just like we don’t always have one large group conversation where anyone can contribute their thoughts at any time in our classrooms, I wonder if we need to think about how to create different kinds of interactions in spaces like this one.

What I know from my classroom experience is that once the “smart” students start talking, other students who don’t feel as smart or knowledgeable will often remain silent. And I think we may want to think about race and gender and probably other factors which may be at play as well. Who is silenced in this space and why? It is easy to think that it just a time issue, but I think there are probably other reasons as well.

One of the lessons we learned at the Greater Kansas City Writing Project (through our Project Outreach work focused on serving the needs of those most affected by poverty) is that just creating an open and welcoming space doesn’t mean that we are doing enough to address our lack of diversity. If we wanted to diversify our site, we had to take strategic steps to do so. I think that if we want more participation, we may need to think strategically about how we do so. I agree that having specific tasks to complete is one good strategy. And I guess my own inquiry has much to do with how we ensure that these digital spaces are participatory and democratic, and not replicating historically racist, classist, sexist ways of silencing us.

And a very minor note, but there are online lurkers; they are not good  for the community.  But there are also online observers, some of whom are learning the rules of the discourse community they are visiting, or are just dropping in to see what is going on. These observers are good for a community. We want to encourage these guests to stay for the party, not make them feel like the outsiders they may already feel like they are.

Another stated this:

In response to some of the concerns about diversity, or making all voices feel welcome, again I don’t think there is a technological short-cut. You just have to take the time to form human relationships, and take people and their contributions seriously. This is different than just having a “friends” or “follower” list. One also has to be cautious about only interacting with people like oneself, forming a perception bubble that excludes opposing points of view. Optimistically, one could argue that digital learning is more empowering because it is less tied to socio-economic privilege. In the U.S., the privatization of education means that the only thing an advanced degree indicates is that you could afford one.

One reason that it is scary to post in online forums–you have to work without the safety net of time delay, editing, or peer-review. In traditional publishing, once you reach the level where you have the chance to speak at all, you are coddled by editors, assistants, and an entire culture that leads to a very well proof-read (but limited and often toneless) voice. Even as a grad student the mentality was that only the most worked-over and approved prose should ever be public. We were told that the more we posted on social networking sites, the less likely our chances would be of finding a job.

I’m thankful for their comments, as it now has me thinking more about those who are “lurking” (and may have no intention of ever joining in a conversation but just are passing through) and those who are “listening” (and are seeking a road in or an invitation to join, but also, may be getting a lot of just following the conversation because it connects to their own learning). Lurkers are fine, and I suspect we all do it when we are online in one form or another.

But listeners are whom we want to connect with if we are building an online space or community. Once again, I am struck by the Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers. I’ve become interested in the slices where the writers talk about what drew them into creating a blog and joining the challenge. Most refer to personal connections with Ruth and Stacey, and the sense of a supportive writing community that values their voice and thoughts. We can learn a lot from those kind of connections.

Peace (wherever you are, whomever you are),


Audio Slice of Life: The Two Young Engineers

Yesterday, I took my youngest son and his friend, and our dog, down to the river. The kids then proceeded to spend about an hour “building a dam/bridge” with rocks and sticks. They didn’t say damn bridge, by the way. They were clear this was a dam/bridge. Anyway, I took out my phone and called in a Slice of Life podcast from the river, using Cinch (a great app that allows for podcasting from your computer, your phone or your mobile device).


Peace (in the building of things),


Book Review: The Brooklyn Nine

I spent the last week feeling like a cranky book reviewer. Maybe I just dove into books that didn’t quite fit my mood. I don’t know.

But I was quite happy to come across The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz just as our Little League season is about to start up. The book languished for a few months with my son, who never got around to reading it, and then in my classroom bookshelves, where none of my students picked it up. On a whim, I grabbed it early last week after finishing The Genius Files (one of my cranky reviews) and immediately got hooked.

On the surface, the book reminds me a lot of Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. That book follows an accordion through historical periods, as the instrument changes hands and stories unfold. In The Brooklyn Nine, Gratz tracks the history of baseball through much of the 20th Century as first a hand-sewn baseball, then a bat, and then more objects make their way from one generation of a family to another, ending up in the present as a disgruntled teenager finally learns the value of the stories of history. It’s a story of nine innings, told in nine chapters.

As Gratz nicely points out in an excellent Author’s Note at the end: “Baseball, more than any other sport, has a magical way of connecting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and ancestors back down the line.” And as one character in the book notes, “I suppose that’s all we ever have in the end. Stories about the people who are gone and a few mementos to remind us that they were here.”

The characters are finely drawn, from the teenage girl breaking into the all-women’s league to the young boy hoping to get a black pitcher a chance in the big leagues to the boy on the mound in the midst of pitching a perfect game. The writing is superb, all around. I’m excited to have found this book and heartily recommend it to anyone with the love of baseball in their heart and soul.

Peace (in the field),


Slice of Life: The Quidditch Fairness Doctrine

As I have mentioned before in Slice of Life, we play a version of Quidditch at our school (see the tutorial video we made a few years back) and March is the month where the Quidditch excitement takes hold for our sixth graders, as it leads to our 13th annual Quidditch Tournament in early April. Yesterday, we took our students to an indoor soccer arena for the entire school day, playing soccer and other games, but mostly focusing in on scrimmage matches of Quidditch between classes.

I love watching them play and my class did exceptionally well, working together, supporting each other and playing the game itself. It’s learning that won’t be found on next week’s standardized testing, that’s for sure.

The trickiest part for us, as teachers, to make sure the playing time is fair and equitable for everyone. It’s a lot of work, and I try to share with my students the tricky task of making sure that no one sits too long during the game (there are seven squads, each four minutes long). There are also some prime positions that most everyone wants to play (beater, chaser, seeker), and I need to make sure everyone gets some time at the positions they want to play. The larger the class, the harder that becomes.
Q Lineup Work

I think I must have spent about two hours working on the lineups for yesterday’s scrimmages. First, I take the requests that they make. Then, I pencil in a chart, marking off on another chart which position they are playing and in which squad. Then, I move those names over to a color-coded chart, which is also what I hang on the wall. Honestly, it is a pain in butt. But I don’t want anyone to feel cheated or left out.

That’s my Quidditch Fairness Doctrine: everybody plays.

We’ve had a few years where we have lost the big tournament because of my doctrine. I could  have easily stacked the decks with my athletes and let the non-athletes do very little. I refuse to do that, and if it means losing, I am OK with that. I want everyone to walk away from their special time with Quidditch (they look forward to it from preschool/kindergarten) and think, that was fun.

Of course, even with all my planning and cross-checking, sometimes things slip. Yesterday, one girl came up to me.

“I’m on the same squad twice, Mr. H, ” she said.


She brought me over and showed me the list. Sure enough, there she was as a seeker and a sidelines tosser. I looked at her and smiled.

“Did you bring your magic potion? That one that allows you to be in two places at one time?”

She laughed, and then we moved things around to straighten it out. And then they played. All of them.

Peace (on the Quidditch pitch),
PS — this is this year’s symbol for my team
Permafrost symbol

Dr Seuss on the Driveway

Dr Suess on the Driveway
My seven year old and my two young nieces took out the sidewalk chalk yesterday and created this wonderful driveway masterpiece to celebrate Dr. Seuss. I was going to share it as part of my Slice of Life, but … I already had something there. So, this is a visual bonus Slice of Life.

Peace (with some chalk and imagination),


Slice of Life: The ‘Inside This’ Poetry Podcast

I’m a big fan of how technology can bring student voices forward. Yesterday, I pulled out my voice recorder as my sixth graders were sharing a poem entitled “Inside This …” and asked if anyone wanted to share their poems as a podcast. I got a handful in each class, and the poems were nicely done, and sound wonderful. (The poem uses figurative language techniques to get at the essence of an inanimate object. I allowed one exception for the girl who wrote about a chicken egg. She loves writing about chickens.)

Enjoy the voices!

Peace (in the podcast),


Book Review: Gregor and the Code of Claw

Cover of: Gregor And The Code Of Claw by Suzanne Collins

And that wraps up the adventures of Gregor the Overlander.

My son and I finished the very last book in the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins. Gregor and the Code of Claw kept up the pace of action and violence of the other books as the humans who live underground in the city of Regalia are engaged in a brutal war with the rats. Gregor, the 12 year old warrior, is a key piece of the puzzle for victory, as is his younger sisters, but Collins nicely develops his character so that he comes to loathe war and relish peace.

If my son had not been so interested, I probably would have stopped at the first or second book in the series. It’s not that the story is not interesting, and it’s not that the characters (particularly Ripred the rat) are not intriguing, but I have to admit that I continued to be put off by the war scenes (which echo our own history). The Code of Claw did bring a lot of plot lines to a close – including an unusual peace agreement between the humans and rats who did survive — and Gregor emerges from the underworld as a scarred, changed and more fully developed person than when he first dropped down through the grate in his laundry room so many books ago.

My son asked if there would be more Gregor books but I suspect Collins has her hands full right now with The Hunger Games and no doubt, some huge publishing contract has landed on her desk for another series. As for me? I am done, Gregor the Overlander. Fly you high! (a phrase that those who read the books would know)

Peace (in the overland),


Slice of Life: Thinking in Haiku

Yesterday morning, I realized that it was World Poetry Day. OK, so I am not sure what that kind of holiday is but it sounds good to me! (I’m a sucker for writing-inspired-days). I decided that I would spend the school day, periodically writing down haiku reflections as my students were doing some poetry writing themselves (which we had already planned.) I also began sharing the haikus on Twitter when I had a few moments. Haiku works well with Twitter due to the brevity of lines and words.

The first poem came from the moment when I made the decision to write poems.

I celebrate poems
Small lines that entwine my heart
released to the world

On the drive to school, it was foggy. Very foggy. I was reminded of Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, and used that as a hook.

Sandburg speaks of fog
I see the cat this morning
shining bright car lights

As I pulled into the parking lot at school, the sun was trying to poke its way through the fog and mist. You could just make out the rays extended through the cloud cover. I know it was illusion, but it looked like strings from a balloon.

Defused sunlight drips
like tether lines off balloons
we chased as children

Before the kids arrive, and as I am getting ready for the day in my classroom, I often play (crank/blast) music in my room to gear up. I chose The Gaslight Anthem, a hard-rocking band that echoes Springsteen.

The Gaslight Anthem
soundtracks my morning with blasts
of blue-collar lives

I turned off the music as the clock struck 8:30 a.m. and then …

Noises in hallways
breaks the silence of morning
the day then begins

During our writing time, I watched the room, observing my sixth graders, writing lines myself.

They’re all poets now
carving out space between words
rhythmic thoughts collide

After the writing, there is the independent reading of novels. I’ve been amazing at how quietly and focused they can read for extended periods of time. (OK, so not everyone. But most of them)

Silence gets broken
only by pages turning
slowly, in their minds

The temperatures outside were reaching 70s by the end of the day and even I was looking wistfully out the window.

Inside; the Outside
beckons you to stare, helpless
as Spring comes alive

And finally, the kids went home, the school calmed down, and I closed up my classroom, walked outside to my van. I closed my eyes to take in the sun. Now, it is family time.

Out into the air
the building releases me
my mind shifts its gears

And that is my school day in haiku. If you are up for it, and you want to comment as haiku, I would be thrilled. (no pressure)

Peace (in the poetry),


Book Review: The Genius Files


I suppose The Genius Files: MIssion Unstoppable will appeal to some core readership. Probably boys who value action over anything else. Dan Gutman has set in motion a kid spy novel series (featuring twin brother, Coke, and sister, Pepsi) that mines the genre thoroughly. Danger? Check. Killers after our heroes? Check. A cross-country adventure? Check. Lame parents who are clueless to the activities of their spy children? Check. An evil villain? Check.

Exhausted by the tropes? Check.

I was hoping for more, particularly since my son recommended this one to me. (He has read the second book in the series, too.) I guess I could not get into Gutman’s style of writing. What hooks me into novels are writing that flows, vocabulary that enhances the storytelling, characters who grow and whom I can believe in, and something that will keep me hooked right the very end. With The Genius Files, I was wondering when the book would end, not what would happen to Coke and Pepsi.

That’s not a good thing to be thinking as a reader.

I did like the geography connections. As the family goes on a cross-country trip in their RV, they take detours to strange places in America (Mom is a blogger who writes about the bizarre tourist sites in the country), and Gutman provides information in the margins of the book on how to use Google Maps to follow the adventure. As Gutman notes in an author’s note, the places referenced in the book are all real places in America. That’s a good point to make for young readers.

Gutman puts out a ton of books and a lot of those books appeal to our boys, so I don’t want to be too harsh here. There is an audience for this kind of book. And I hope that readers of this series will be intrigued enough by the genre to move to other spy novels and other mystery stories, and maybe even other Gutman books. For the reluctant boy reader, The Genius Files might be a hook to keep them reading.

Peace (in the book),