Slice of Life: Holding Hands to End A Conference

Yesterday morning, I gave the opening keynote address at Alabama’s Red Mountain Writing Project. My topic was writing, technology and the Common Core, but really it was about paying attention to and celebrating the many multiple literacies in the lives of our students, in all of its myriad forms (with an emphasis on the ways that technology is transforming our definition of writing). I told stories of some students, trying to craft  a narrative of learning and observations. I had plenty of great conversations afterwards, touching on topics such as the digital divide, access issues, finding meaningful ways to use technology for learning, and stories of successful and not-so-successful projects. I gave encouragement and resources. I commiserated at times. You never know when that one idea, or that one little chat, might help help a colleague transform a classroom experience.

But I really want to write this slice of life about the ending keynote, by novelist Sharon Draper. Her conversation, which is what it was more than a keynote, was inspiring in the many, many ways. She reminded us not to pigeonhole kids as learners, and to understand the whole child (inside and outside of school), and to put the right book in the right hands at the right time.  She even shared a touching digital story, with images of students off all abilities and all races, put to the voice of Louie Armstrong. Draper was funny, candid, heart-wrenching at times, and very engaging. She is a very natural storyteller. (Plus, she gave away free books at the end of her talk)

Draper ended the conference, and her talk, by having the entire room hold hands with each other, and then we repeated an uplifting pledge as teachers to celebrate our students and to nurture them from whatever place they come from, and not to undervalue them as learners. We pledged to be supportive, and help each other, too, as fellow teachers. I’m not from Birmingham and my chances of crossing paths with most of these teachers seems slim (other than the few I know through my National Writing Project connections), but I felt a powerful emotional connection to that hall filled with other teachers in that moment. It was like a prayer meeting, without the religion. Our voices in unison, and our hands clasped together, united us in a wonderful way that focused our attention on our very important roles in the lives of young people.

Thank you, Sharon, for reminding us of what matters in our classroom.

Peace (in the connection),


Book Review: The Nine Pound Hammer

The blood of American Tall Tales runs thick throughout this first book of a young adult series called The Clockwork Dark, which centers on the adventures of a 12-year-old boy, Ray, and his new magical friends who must battle an evil creature who seeks to destroy .. the world? Well, it wasn’t exactly always clear to me what the GOG wanted to do, to be honest, (nor why he needed a Siren to do it). While I was drawn in by the use of tall tales (particularly the fable of John Henry, and his son, and the nine pound magical hammer from which the book gets its name), I kept losing track of the story and the characters.

(And I appreciated the author’s notes at the end of the novel, as writer John Claude Bemis explained how he came up with the idea for the series after singing the traditional song about John Henry, and wanting to make a story that did not use European-centered themes of knights and quests, but one that tapped into Americana.)

I kept reading The Nine Pound Hammer, though, because I wanted to like the story (it helps that Bemis is a former teacher), and I would get rewarded at times with action and suspense, and interesting characters. It just felt unfocused and muddled one time too many for me. I wanted to be more centered on the John Henry angle, and I didn’t always get that. Darn it. (And the cover is so intriguing).

I don’t expect to keep reading the series, but maybe I will find a reader in my class who will be drawn in by the legend of Tall Tales and the sense of adventure.

Peace (in the hammer-time),


Slice of Life: Tears from ‘Wonder’

So, there I was, on my way from home in Western Massachusetts to Birmingham, Alabama, relishing the time I could finally spend reading Wonder by RJ Palacio. I had actually won it in a blog contest through my teacher network (thanks, Colby!), and passed it along first to my son, who gave it back up to me for this trip. (He wants it back). I started the book in Hartford, continued it via my layover in Baltimore, and finished it en route to Birmingham.

It brought me to tears, this book did. And I found myself wishing fervently for a more private place than an aisle seat on an airplane, surrounded by strangers as I was caught up in the emotional ending in which the power of “kindness” hit me like a punch to the gut. This wonderful book is about a boy entering fifth grade, about what it means to be different, and what it means to find your place in the world where good can bubble up in expected places. I won’t give the plot away. I won’t say more about why I was tearing up, choking back emotion. You’ll have to read Wonder to figure that out (and you should.)

What I will say is that, every now and then, a book crosses my hands that reminds me of why I read and why I keep on reading — and why I sometimes suffer mediocre books in hopes that a jewel will surface. Wonder is one of those books. I know there more of these jewels out there. I’ll just have to keep on reading to find them.

Peace (in the slice),


Developing a Keynote: Why Literacy Matters

screenshot of Literacy Matters Presentation
It seems like a long, long time ago that I was invited by my friend Ben Davis to give a keynote address to the Red Mountain Writing Project’s 21st Century Literacies Conference. And yet, here it is. Tomorrow, I will be presenting my thoughts and stories on what it means to be teaching in a world dominated by shifts to the Common Core, and technology as tools for writing, and more. (Today, I travel). I’m excited about the opportunity to visit Birmingham, Alabama, and of course, a tad bit nervous about the responsible of giving one of the keynote addresses (the other is by writer Sharon Draper). I hope what I have to say resonated with the crowd, and I hope I am not boring.

As I have been developing the ideas to present, I have been working hard to connect what I teach to not only what is expected of me as a teacher in this standardized environment (ie, Common Core influence), but also, how I can best engage my sixth graders as writers in this digital age when our definitions of writing is in the midst of some shift, and just what that may mean to a classroom teacher.  My aim is to share my own classroom experiences, and to relate how I try to “pay attention” to what my students are doing with their literacies outside of school. I’ll work to weave those stories together into a narrative that (hopefully) inspires others.

I named my talk “Literacy Matters” because it seems to me that now, more than ever, writing and literacy is at the heart of all that our students are doing — in school and out of school. When they communicate via text messaging, they are engaging in literacy. When they shoot a video and post it online, they are engaged in literacy. When they play a video game, they are engaged in literacy. When they write a story or an essay or a poem or a reflection, they are engaged in literacy. The technology aspect of composition sometimes hides the literacies taking place, however, and we need to make those ideas more visible, bring them to the surface.

That’s part of my intention, anyway. I hope it goes well.


Here is a handout that I developed to accompany my talk.
Literacy Matters Handout


Peace (in the keynote),


Slice of Life: Snow Day Activities

(This is part of the 2012 Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.)

Here is a rundown of what happened in and around our house yesterday as the first (and last?) snowstorm of 2012 caused schools to close for the day:

    • Three games of chess between my 7 year old and myself. I won all three. But I did give strategic advice on a regular basis. It may not be long before he is beating me. I need to stay sharp!
    • My 11 year old played games of Parcheesi by himself. In honor of the upcoming March Madness College Basketball Selection Sunday, he has been charting games between “the pieces” on the board, conducting an entire tournament of animal pieces versus animal pieces. He refuses to let anyone of us play with him, much to the frustration of his younger brother. But, tournament rules are tournament rules …
    • An impromptu brunch party gathering at our house for some neighbors and family who live close by. We also showed a premiere of my younger son’s movie project: Robbers on the Loose. It was widely hailed as a great piece of work, except from the older brothers who laughed at it. You know how that goes …
    • My nieces and son built a snowman in the back yard. They worked on it for close to an hour. Then our dog went out and peed on it. You know how that goes …
    • A new version of Monopoly was invented. Money tossed into the air, falling like confetti. Houses and motels were lined up along the floor. The dice — left alone in the box. It didn’t end in tears, so you know it was a good game. And no parents were involved in the rule making or enforcement, although we did watch with fascination for a spell.
    • I brought up the “wooden city” from the basement. This is not easy to describe. It’s a plastic tray filled with wooden blocks, assorted super hero figurines, plastic animals and tons of, eh, junk that become the basis for imaginative play. My son and nieces literally sat there, inventing stories for about 45 minutes before moving on. I put it back in the basement, forgotten until another day.


  • Visitors all went home, and the older boys went off to hang out with friends — one to go sledding and the other to engage in a boys’ snowball fight on the lawn of a friend.
  • Reading time as my youngest son and I kept on reading Gregor and the Marks of Secret. We agreed that this series gets darker as it goes along. What will happen to the Nibblers? We still keep reading.
  • A little Wii time. Star Wars, to be exact. We have to keep shouting to our son, “step away from the screen,” as if we were police officers barking out some commands. Watching him play is like watching a dance in the living room. He shuffles around the floor as he plays.
  • More Gregor.
  • We shoo the kids upstairs for the night and my wife and I snuggle in for an episode of Boardwalk Empire.
  • Sleep time.

Peace (in the slice),


Exploring Pinterest 1: Books About Technology and Learning

I’ve been reading so much about Pinterest that I finally got into the site to give it a shot (thanks to an invite from a friend on Twitter). It’s OK. I like the visual element of sharing, but it seems like navigation is sort of tricky and not very intuitive to me.  The homepage of the site is a visual mess. I do like how easy it is to create a project in Pinterest, and the javascript button now in my tool bar sure is handy for adding new elements (oh, excuse me, a new “pin”) to existing sites (eh, they are called “boards”).

Still, I created some “boards” around some themes that I am interested in. Here is one: Technology and Writing.
Pinterest book board

Technology and Writing: Book Reviews

Peace (on the board),



Slice of Life: Building Bridges

(This is part of the 2012 Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.)

Yesterday, our superintendent called for a half day, due to the snow storm on the way (which is now here, leading to a day off today – our first since the blizzard hit us in the fall). Half days don’t leave us a lot of time to teach because our sixth graders have their specials (art, music, etc.) in the mornings. By the time they arrive back to our classroom, we have short periods. It can be a wasted day, in some ways.

bridge collage

Yesterday, my science colleague decided to take advantage of the half day by declaring it “Bridge Building Day” in the sixth grade. They do a toothpick bridge design project for their engineering curriculum, and so we transformed each of our four classrooms into a construction zone for about 90 minutes. It was fun to watch the collaboration and listen to the chatter as my kids were working. I put on some pop music with Pandora and a few times, the whole class broke out into song while gluing toothpicks together. (It was like they were in Glee or something).

While I had to delay the start of a project myself, it was worth it. They had sustained science time and I got an opportunity to see them working in another subject area (I see them for ELA). And I got to hear them sing once or twice.

Peace (in the zone),