Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again

You know how you read that “one great book” in a certain genre and then everything else in that genre that you read gets compared to that one great book? When it comes to novels written in the form of poems, I can’t let go of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. She did such a masterful job of using poetry to get at the heart of a story. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is not Love That Dog but it is something special in its own right.

Inside Out & Back Again shares the inner thoughts of a young girl, Ha, whose family must evacuate Saigon when that city falls during the Vietnam War. The father is missing in action — a weight which the entire family carries with them wherever they go — and Ha and her mother and brothers end up re-locating to Alabama. The short poems are touching, and full of voice of Ha, and our perceptions of the world through her eyes as she faces a loss of home, remembering a father she never knew, and then assimilation into an American town that is reluctant to accept her family as its own is powerful to experience.

I have to admit: when the neighbor (a retired teacher) finally becomes the one person that Ha can turn to for advice and help, and then you learn that she lost her only son in the Vietnam War, and Ha asks her if she blames Ha for the death of her son …. I got choked up and had to brush back tears. It’s a moment that comes suddenly, and so openly, that you understand then how the writer’s use of poetry to tell the story from an emotional standpoint makes sense.

Unlike Love That Dog, the poems that make up the story here would not really stand on their own as poems, I don’t think. But woven together, they form the tapestry of an immigrant story and remind us that those who make their ways into another country have stories to tell, even if they don’t have the language to tell it. Their outwards silence masks an inner voice that is alive and powerful, full of fear and confidence, and we should not be deceived by appearances.

Inside Out & Back Again (which won a National Book Award and was a Newbery Medal Honor winner) is a terrific book, and reminds us of how stories can transform lives. A short note at the end by Lai informs us that Lai’s journey is similar to Ha’s, and her own experiences in the aftermath of the Vietnam War here in America are what inspired her to write the story. For the reader, it is a reminder of how we all need to be more accepting and more kind to those who are trying to forge a new life here amongst us. All students need to hear that message.

Peace (in the poem),


Post-Professional Development Reflections

Last week, I spent a day at another elementary school in my area, focusing on sharing some activities that integrates technology into the writing activities as a consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The principal of this school (who is probably reading this .. hey, Mike) has impressed me with his energy and also his commitment to helping pave a path for his staff to see some possibilities and start planning out more steps forward towards considering how media and technology are part of young people’s lives and how we as teachers need to start tapping into that for learning. It really does take the leadership of a principal and support of administration for teachers to feel like they can take that first step (even if it is handing over the pen to the interactive board to students for an activity). When a teacher feels isolated, and if they are already wary of technology, then change will rarely happen in the classroom.

The team at the school who brought me in wisely asked that I do some demonstration lessons, so I spent much of the morning in a first grade classroom (using Storybird), a third grade classroom (digital storytelling) and a fifth grade classroom (more digital storytelling) working with students while the teacher and other guests from the building and district watched. Then, I gave a presentation to the entire staff about the issues around technology, focusing in on digital storytelling in particular. Finally, the principal invited me to join a few others in a podcast discussion around technology and the lives of young people.

It was a fantastic day, all around.

Sure, I got to share some expertise of mine from my own classroom and work with WMWP, but for me, it was so wonderful to go into another elementary school, meet a really dedicated staff of caring professionals, interact with different groups of students, and become part of a larger conversation about what kind of shifts need to be taking place as we consider the changing nature of classroom instruction in the age of Common Core (which our state is part of) and digital media. It makes me wonder why we don’t do more school visitation programs.

The principal kindly sent me feedback and reactions from his staff regarding my day at the school.

I was impressed by how many ideas are now being sparked by what we did that day. Teachers are considering digital storytelling ideas for activities across the curriculum, envisioning new ways to use their interactive boards, having students become photographers for images that will spark more writing, creating Prezi presentations for their students and by their students,  thinking of the ways that technology might motivate and reach a diverse group of learners and provide access to learning in new ways, and considering how to use technology do more cross-class collaboration projects.

Now it falls to the principal and his group to keep the momentum going (I still have a few hours to work there so we are now working on a follow-up plan), and he wisely asked his staff the question of “what do you need” from him to make progress. Again, the teachers were very insightful and specific with their recommendations. One theme: time to explore and time to reflect on how to make the technology meaningful in their classrooms.

As a consultant coming in from the outside, this school clearly has a lot of positive energy, and is inquisitive, and is on the path towards interesting things.

Peace (as the presenter),


At the Nerdy Book Club: A Note to the Book Thief

I have a post up at the Nerdy Book Club this morning. This is how the post begins:

Dear Student Who Stole My Book,

Listen – I get it. The book is wicked cool. That’s why I read it in the first place and that’s why I recommended it to all of you as my students. So, I understand why you wanted to take the book and read it. I kept it right there – smack dab on our classroom shelf – for that very reason. I want you all to read good books and I want to recommend good books to you. I’m happy to see them in your hands.

But the problem is, you took it and you never returned it.

Head on over to the Nerdy Book Club blog to read the rest of my piece to an anonymous student who pilfered one of my favorite books.

Or you can listen to the podcast version of the piece, too.


Peace (in the note),


The Invented Words Podcast Collection


I like how my students’ invented words look in that Olde English font with Wordle. They had a great time trying to find their words on the board yesterday. Even more than that, I love hearing the podcasts we made of them sharing their words and definitions. (This is part of a multi-year collaborative wiki dictionary project).


Peace (in the sharing),



Book Review: The D-Minus Poems of Jeremy Bloom

Poor Jeremy Bloom. He just can’t get a break in The D-MInus Poems of Jeremy Bloom. Every time he tries to get on the good side of his teacher, Ms. Terranova, something happens: his father rams her new car, or a stink bomb goes off when the teacher is in the rest room or Jeremy falls asleep during an important moment of the school play and chaos ensues or … well, you get the picture unfolding in this “story” of Jeremy’s school year as told through a mixture of short narratives (in the style of an investigative report) and poems that Jeremy writes (but which somehow keep earning him D- grades. If only they were on a standards-based reporting system …)

This short, clever book by prolific author Gordon Korman and his mom, Bernice (OK, time to take a quick detour. How cool is it that Korman wrote a book with him mom? It struck me at the end of the book, when I realized this partnership was not a husband-wife but a mom-son team, that he is just so lucky to have done this book and got it published. Pretty nifty) is somewhat uneven at times. What I kept wondering is: who IS this teacher who reads the poems that Jeremy is writing AND KEEPS GIVING HIM A D-MINUS. I mean, seriously.

The poems are a wide mix of rhyming and non-rhyming, with lots of wordplay and insightfulness, and the topics of the poems are all about Jeremy’s life and his impressions of school, etc. (The book’s subtitle is A Collection of Poems about School, Homework and Life – Sort of) I enjoyed most of the poems here, although it would have been stronger if there had been a more cohesive narrative underpinning the poems. Most seem sort of random, as if he were writing poems and then stuffing them into a notebook, even as the narrative moves us along through the school year.

Overall, The D-Minus Poems of Jeremy Bloom is an enjoyable read during Poetry Month, but I am not sure who the audience in my classroom will be for it.

Peace (in the poems),


Book Review: I Love Rock N’ Roll (Except When I Hate It)

This book, whose full title is I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (Except When I Hate It): Extremely Important Stuff About the Songs and Bands You Love, Hate, Love to Hate, and Hate to Love, is a collection of small pieces about music (whose title reminds one of an Fiona Apple album). The ins and outs of the rock world, with all its tendency towards strangeness and wonder, is filtered through writer Brian Boone’s sense of humor and real love of music. The pieces are small, and fun to read, and you can tell that Boone has honed his craft as a writer by working with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series of book.

In this collection, you will learn more than you need to know about:

  • Bands that fell apart due to artistic differences
  • Bands that changed when its leader left
  • How songs were inspired, and how songs fell apart due to inspiration
  • Misjudgements of some bands (DEVO goes Disney?) and missed opportunities of others
  • How to sell out and why that sucks when your favorite band does it
  • The meaning of some songs that may have puzzled you for years (or not)
  • And much more than you really need to know but still do want to know (because that’s how fans like us operate)

I read this book over two months or so, picking it up now and then, and thoroughly enjoying it. Now, I am going to pass it along to someone in my band (Duke Rushmore) because I know they love rock and roll as much as I do (or love to hate it? Hate to love it? ack) and this book hits the heart of anyone who fancies themselves a rocker or a fan.

Peace (in the amplification),


Working with Wikis, Podcasts and Words

Argnloth: The time of the day when your eyes turn into donuts shaped like frogs

Yesterday was one of those days where, if the superintendent or top school officials popped into my classroom, I’d probably have some explaining to do.

Picture this: computers are spread out about the room, with students milling about, using our class wiki site. Others are jumping up on the back table, using markers to write on chart paper on the wall. A few more are mingling behind my desk. And I am at my computer, with Audacity up and pointing to students sitting in my comfortable teacher seat. There’s the loud hum of activity and social interaction.

It no doubt seemed like unstructured chaos to an outside viewer. But it wasn’t.

Junglebum– The act of getting stung by a wasp while reading a book.

The task at hand was adding invented words to a multi-year online collaborative dictionary project. At the computers, the stations were set up around letters of the alphabet, and students were editing the wiki pages to add their words and definitions. Later, I will have some student “editors” go in and clean up any grammar or other issues.

Quangadoodle –An animal that can draw anything in less then 3 seconds

At the back of the room, they were adding their words to the chart paper, so that this year’s crop of invented words would also exist in physical space, so that all four of my sixth grade classes would have access to the words (for a writing prompt and just because they are always interested in what the other classes are up to).

And my desk was our “podcast” station where I was recording them reading their words and definitions, and creating MP3 files, which have been uploaded and will be connected to their words in the larger dictionary project. And that project is a creative way for us to end our entire unit on Word Origins, and our inquiry into how words make their way into the English language.

It may have seemed like chaos but there was rhyme and reason, and rationale, behind it all. Really.

Wumpyflapy– amazing, engrossing, fantastic. example: This book is so wumpyflapy!

Peace (in the words),

Still writing poems …. Cluttered Memories

It’s Day 26 and I am still writing poems almost every day with Bud Hunt, who provides images for inspiration at his blog site. I liked today’s poem, so I figured I would share it out. (You can see the image that he provided here).

Cluttered Memories

You hide in here with my scrapbooks
my photos
my poems, my stories, my scripts
amid cluttered boxes of old garments
that no longer fit
in a space between the hours in which I live
I think, today’s the day I look for you,
but then, again, I forget.

The podcast of the poem is here and embedded down below.


Peace (amid the poems),


Days in a Sentence on a Glog

Over at our National Writing Project iAnthology social networking site, I hosted a writing prompt this past week called Day in a Sentence (which used to be a regular weekly writing activity here and in other spaces). I love how folks boil down their day or their week into a single reflective sentence. And the one sentence format makes it easy to create interesting projects. I took the collection of Days in a Sentences this week and put them into a Glog.

Peace (in the days),

PS — Do you have a sentence? Add it as a comment.