When Siblings Provide the Mentor Text: Stopmotion Movies


My older son is working on a stopmotion movie for his eighth grade science class around the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat (is the cat alive or dead, or both states at the same time?). The stopmotion element is part of a larger video project that he and his friends are working on for their investigation. But all of the equipment is set up: the camcorder, the computer, the background paper.

During a lull in our vacation this week, the seven-year-old brother asked if he could make his own stopmotion movie. He’s done it before, so I said, sure. He proceeded, with a little help, to make the following movie:

What is interesting is that he revisited some characters — The Pea Detectives — that were invented by his older brother years ago (first as a comic and then as stopmotion movies), and used the echoes of some old stories that he remembered for his movie. Here is part of his brother’s Pea Detective movies:

It reminded me of the power of siblings, and how often the experiences of our brothers and sisters shape our own ideas around the world. I’m not trying to get him to branch out a bit. His next movie, which he again did almost entirely by himself, left the Peas behind, but he is still clinging to the idea of “treasure” as the hook of all of his movie stories.

Peace (in the frames),

Book Review: The Wrecking Crew


One of the secrets of the music recording industry is that for many years (and probably even into today), hired studio musicians often played the instruments on the tracks and we never knew. Nowadays, it is the producers providing samples and other layers of sound for singers to come in and lay down some vocals. But back when instruments were still played (dinosaur alert!), plenty of bands went into the studio, only to find that they could have left their guitars, bass and drums home.

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman is an eye-opener narrative about the core of studio musicians in Los Angeles during the 1960s and the start of the 1970s who provided the soundtrack to most of the rock and pop songs that became the soundtrack for the era, including bands like The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle, the Beach Boys and more. Anchored by legendary drummer Hal Blaine and guitarist/bassist Carol Kaye and others, The Wrecking Crew completely transformed the way music was recorded and then sold the public.

This inside look into the characters who made up that scene, and the entire music industry that formed around it, is intriguing, and it reminds me a bit of the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the musicians in that studio known as The Funk Brothers who also played on just about every single hit coming out of Motown. It turns out that professional studio musicians were at just about every recording facility during that time period, cranking out hits while the artists were merely providing vocals.

The Wrecking Crew is a fun read and peels back the layer of how music used to get produced, and how we maybe should not quite trust our ears when we hear something on the radio.

Peace (in the studio),


Gaming Challenge: The Lure of the Labyrinth

Lure of the Labyrinth

I’m weighing the possibilities of having my sixth grade students join in a new gaming challenge called The Lure of the Labyrinth, which is an online math-based video game challenge that I learned about from an email newsletter from Fablevision. The gaming challenge for middle school students runs through June 15 and is described this way:

(The Lure of the Labyrinth is a) collaboration between FableVision Studios, the Education Arcade at MIT, and Maryland Public Television, Lure of the Labyrinth is a compelling online game that requires students to use mathematical thinking skills. The challenge invites groups of students to work together in a teacher-moderated environment.

And, as for what the game itself is:

Lure of the Labyrinth is a web-based game where middle-school students are immersed in a compelling storyline in which an underground monster-inhabited world comes to life. Players plunge into a shadowy factory on a mission to rescue their missing pet using mathematical thinking skills to progress through the graphic-novel story.

In the Challenge, Labyrinth is played in teams of 4 – 6 students, and was designed to give all students a chance to learn and succeed. A safe, educator-moderated game-embedded communication device allows players on the same team to exchange ideas and game strategies, and encourages collaborative game play.

Lure of the Labyrinth is intertwined with standards-based curriculum designed to improve math and literacy. Sections of the game correspond to typical pre-algebra curricula: fractions, proportions, ratios, variables and equations, and number and operations. Within each section, there are puzzles at multiple levels that the students must solve as they move forward in the game.

It appears to use a graphic novel story interface to move the student along into challenge areas (which reminds me a lot of Gamestar Mechanic).

I’m intrigued by the math concept of problem solving and am wondering if some sort of collaboration between myself and my math teacher (similar to what I did with my science teacher) might make sense. All this might have to happen after our next round of state testing. Our math assessment comes in about two weeks. But I can also imagine the pockets of students who would just jump at the chance to do this kind of complex, puzzle gaming competition (there are some prizes, which can be a motivator for some students).

I do like that there are teacher guides and connections to national learning standards and lesson plans and even a handout about the classroom teacher’s role in the whole adventure. I wonder about the collaborative element of the project (and how I might set up collaboration across all four of the classes I teach somehow … interesting).

What do you think?

Peace (in the game),



Sending off “Teaching the New Writing”

I happily sealed up and mailed off a copy of our Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change and Assessment in the 21st Century Classroom yesterday to one of the many writers in the Slice of Life Challenge that took place in March over at Two Writing Teachers. The book was a gift as a prize that Stacey and Ruth were giving out to participants. It seemed the least I could do for them, giving their work in nurturing writers for the past five years of the Slice of Life Challenge.

I sent the book, and a short note, off to Barbara, who runs a blog called First Grade Delight. I hope she enjoys it and finds some useful ideas in there. As I noted in my letter to her, sometimes we are planting seeds of ideas and hoping things will take bloom, even if it happens slowly and over time. Our aim with our book was always to showcase some teachers, and provide some ideas to think about the possibilities of writing as technology becomes part of the lives of our students.

Peace (in the book),


Book Review: The Moment

As you might expect, The Moment by Smith Magazine packs a lot of emotional punch, as writers of all backgrounds relate “the moment” when everything shifted for them. What I found fascinating in this small book collection of 125 stories is how any of the moments seemed to take place during the middle school years. A comment from a teacher, a new friendship (or an old one, crumbling), a choice made (or not), a bit of advice from a parent …. in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, these events can take on monumental significance.

It reminded me again of the role I have as a teacher, particularly if those “moments” are taking place right now, in my classroom, in my presence. The students may not realize the importance of it now, but later, if they have any of the reflective abilities of the writers in this fantastic collection, they will see it clearly for what it is: a life-altering moment in which everything can change.

The online Smith Magazine has been putting out some great books lately — I still love the various Six Word Memoir collections such as Not Quite What I Was Expecting — and The Moment (billed as “the instant your life changed”) ranks right up there. I was touched at many points, and even teared up a few times. There is a raw honesty in so many of these stories, and yet, so many were of an affirming nature, too. Lots of the moments in our lives are about hardship, but also, about the ways we dealt or at least accepted these situations and moved on to better things. And people keep sharing their stories. There is a whole section of the Smith website for folks to share their own moments on the website, and they do.

From a writing standpoint, particularly for older writers, The Moment would make an excellent mentor text. The stories are short and powerful, and very accessible (although a few have more adult themes, so teachers should cull from the book, not use the entire text, in my opinion).

Peace (in the many moments),


So Long, Andrew Love (of the Memphis Horns)

It’s becoming a sad year for legendary saxophone players.

First, Clarence Clemons passed away last June. Now, it is Andrew Love.

If Clemons is more well-known to you as a name (for his work with Bruce and his larger-than-life stage presence), I’ll wager a bet that Love’s saxophone sound and arrangements are a sound you know all too well, even if you never realized it. As one half of The Memphis Horns section, Love and partner Wayne Jackson (on trumpet) created the wall of horns on most of the R&B tracks from Stax Studios and more that became the soundtrack to much of the 1960s and 1970s. Love passed away a few days ago, after battling Alzheimer’s.

The Memphis Horns even won themselves a Lifetime Grammy Award a few years ago.


So Long, Andrew Love. Your sounds will remain.

Peace (on the saxophone),


Book Review: House of Stone

If a nonfiction book is a vessel of memory and an heirloom of stories from the author to the world, then journalist Anthony Shadid has created something magical with House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East. Shadid, who won Pulitzer Prizes awards for his reporting with newspapers including The New York Times, took a leave of absence from his work in order to return to his ancestral home in Lebanon, and then, he decides his mission during this year off from reporting is to return the run-down home into its former glory. House of Stone recants Shadid’s efforts to reconnect with his family’s roots, in part for his daughter and in part for himself.

But House of Stone is after something larger, too. It’s also the story of the Middle East, and how war and uncertainty (and even the echoes of the Ottoman Empire) make for difficult living for anyone in Lebanon, and Shadid’s eye for detail and for character are put to good use as he works with locals and distant family members. The house connects them all to the past, when honor and trust and community were the fabric of the small town where Shadid’s family hailed from (before mostly immigrating to Oklahoma). His writing shifts between the modern-day efforts to get his house built, and a historical narrative of his family tree. Toggling back and forth, Shadid creates a masterful mosaic that invites you in to the story and even the planting of an olive tree doesn’t seem forced (he plants it for his daughter).

And yet, reading this book is sad, too, because you remember that Shadid died recently from an asthma attack even as he was in his role as a journalist, covering the Middle East in the middle of the violence, as he was apt to do. Still, his book is a gift, if not of full understanding of the Middle East for westerners like me, then at least House of Stone provides a glimpse into the world beyond the headlines, beyond the bombs, and into the lives of regular folks who yearn for peace and for the way things used to be. Shadid’s book reminds of us some Universal Truths about people — we all want stability and we all want a better future for our children — and so Shadid’s writingis indeed a welcome journey to be on. (See this multimedia remembrance of Shadid.)

Peace (among the homes),

More: Facebook and Kids

I saw this and thought about some recent posts I had around Facebook and my sixth grade students. The results here seem to coincide with my own surveys with my 11 and 12 year old students. I also notice that concerns over “sharing too much” by parents of children on Facebook also is in line with my own perceptions after talking to parents (and being a parent myself).

from: http://www.minormonitor.com/infographic/kids-on-facebook/

Peace (in the network),


The Writing Project (Teacher) Writers

For the past nine months or so, I have been coordinating a partnership between our local newspaper (The Daily Hampshire Gazette) and our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My role has been to solicit teachers in our writing project to write an educational column for the monthly education section of the newspaper. It’s a partnership that our writing project once had with another regional newspaper (The Springfield Republican) and it’s a natural fit, in a way.

The newspaper needs columnists. Our teachers can write. And our writing project gets some nice benefits by being associated with some great writers and educators in a very public forum. (Unfortunately, they don’t get paid for writing for the newspaper.) While the newspaper runs a paid website for most of its content, they have agreed to provide us with public urls to the columns by our teachers. So, here is what we have written about and explored this year:

My wife, Leslie, is a media specialists/librarian at a vocational high school, and she has done a lot of work around book clubs for her students. A grant she received has allowed her to run after-school programs that now mesh books with film.

“When I started a book club at my school, I wasn’t so naïve as to imagine that high school students would choose multicultural classics, or even books with optimistic themes. But I also didn’t expect a steady diet of dystopian literature or books about youth getting a raw deal from those in power.” — read more of her column

Momodou Sarr teaches special education at a regional high school. His column was about the power of community and the power of expectations of our students, no matter the academic level. He also shows how project-based learning, with real involvement in the community, can make a difference.

“Teaching in a self-contained classroom means that a group of students becomes your family, in a way. It is interesting to watch how grade-level identities disappear. Students coming together in one classroom begin the difficult task of trusting each other, letting stereotypes melt away as they gain trust in each other as well as the teachers in the classroom.” — read more of his column

Alicia Lopez wrote about her experiences teaching at a middle school, and about how emerging student writers are a powerful group to be witness to, and help along. She also explains how difficult it can be for a teacher to juggle teaching with their own lives outside of school.

“I find it hard to believe that I am halfway through my 17th year as a language teacher. I have taught grades five to 12, and am now in my eighth year of teaching middle school in Amherst. Having come from a family of supremely dedicated and hard-working teachers, I resisted the profession for a long time. I saw the exhaustion and frustration on my parents’ faces after a long day of teaching and dealing with students. Eventually, though, the other side of that story is what has kept me teaching: the simple rewards of reaching a student, of making a connection, of, in the long run, changing a life.” — read the rest of her column

Michael Braidman teaches English and runs the Drama Club at a high school. He wrote about the experience of providing a multitude of rich experiences for his students, and watching them flourish on the stage.

“As educators, we find opportunities both in and out of the classroom. I’m fortunate enough to run my high school’s drama company, which, like all extracurriculars, provides valuable teaching experiences for its coach as well as great learning opportunities for participants. After school the auditorium becomes like a second classroom for me, a place where I engage students in intellectual discussions on literature (specifically, plays we’re producing) as well as teach them about the various tasks, materials and arrangements necessary to put on a theatrical production. When I bring together a cast and crew to prepare, rehearse and perform a play, I’m facilitating all sorts of learning, as well as giving students a chance to have some fun. Some of them also find unique leadership opportunities.” — read more of his column

Julie Spencer-Robinson used her column to tell the story of how she helps her middle school students understand empathy, and action on behalf of others.

““Who are those kids?” Andrew asked me. He was talking about the boy in the wheelchair who rolled down the hallway outside our sixth-grade classroom every day, accompanied by one or two of his classmates and their aides. “Oh, they’re in a special class down the hall,” I replied. Later, we learned that the name of the boy in the wheelchair was Gary, and he and Andrew quickly struck up a friendship. They would hang out together at Andrew’s locker, and Gary would use his communication device — or his aide — to crack jokes with his new friend. Pretty soon Gary was coming into our classroom to visit, and so were some of the other kids in his class. ” — read more of her column

And I kicked off the series last fall with a piece on understanding video gaming as I listened to my students.

“It’s become clear to me over the last few years that video gaming is one of those worlds that most teachers and most adults know very little about, and one area of youth culture that we are more likely to dismiss as entertaining diversions rather than immersive environments where interesting learning and skill development takes place. We’re more likely to dismiss gaming rather than embrace it.” — read more of my column

We’re proud of our teachers and about the ways we have worked with the newspaper to focus on our teachers as writers. Just as important, we know we have important things to say, and the newspaper has been just another way to reach our audience.

Peace (in the sharing),

Book Review: Surviving the Applewhites

Contrived is the word that kept lingering in my mind as I read Surviving the Applewhites. I didn’t want that to be the word in my head but I couldn’t shake it off. Everything about this novel just seemed forced to me — from the main character juvenile delinquent who “finds his true self” when he is sent to a non-traditional “school” run by the nutty Applewhite family, to the plot device of the production of a musical that brings the whole family and assorted hangers-on together.

Normally, I would have given up on the book early and moved on to something better. But this book was presented to every sixth grader in our school district at a recent Literacy Event (in which the author came to talk) and at a school meeting the other day, some of the folks who planned the event at our high school (which was running the whole thing as part of a regional Community Read) were touting what a great book it was and how their own students could not stop reading it. OK, so maybe this is one of those books where my own interests as a reader diverge from the interests of my students.

But I don’t think so.

I mean, I wanted to like Surviving the Applewhites (a Newbery Honor Book, apparently) by Stephanie Tolan. I really did. I wanted to know that the book that I was putting into their hands (the kids who did not go to the literacy event got their books on Friday so I was in the role of “book deliverer”) would keep them engaged for the coming week of vacation. I have my doubts.

The thing is, the premise of the story has great merit. When Jake Semple is introduced — following yet another expulsion and a deep history of bad behavior — you think, now here is an interesting character. But Tolan goes all wishy-washy on us, and forces the “change” in Jake that allows him to soften. If you know any tough kids in your life, you know it takes more than a dog wagging its tale and a little kid tagging along with them to change. I just couldn’t buy it.

And the Applewhite family, along with having too many characters to first keep track of, is full of stereotypes, so much so that when we learn that spiritual Swami is arriving soon at the house, I just shook my head and knew he would be a gentle soul who would probably offer a sense of calm in the midst of chaos, and maybe introduce them to Indian food. Bingo. That all happened.

The biggest disappointment, for me, was E.D. — the smart Applewhite daughter whose narrative voice forms the other arc of the story (in counter to Jake’s). Here is this girl who thrives on order living in a family of nuts, and there is so much Tolan could have done to flesh out this wonderful thinker …. instead, she is handed the reins as play manager. Oh, E.D. — you deserved so much more!

In the back of my mind, what I was really thinking was: why didn’t our school district choose Wonder by RJ Palacio as the book to hand out? Now, there is a book that would change lives and alter perceptions and get kids talking.

Peace (in the reading),