The Literacies of Buying a New Car

You can tell I have the Common Core in the back of my mind with today’s post but my wife and I were out buying a new car yesterday (our old car lasted us 18 years, so this is a big deal for us), and it occurred to me that many of the skills that are now embedded in the new standards actually came into play as we got ourselves ready for a real-life situation that neither one of us enjoys.

Consider this:

  • First, we had to do a lot of research on the kind of car we wanted. This involved many hours of online searching (and the need for skills in those researching hours). We collected various strands of information and shared them with each other (through Read it Later bookmarking browser add-on, mostly) and had to “read” informational text to understand the features of the cars that are available in our price range.
  • Second, we had to sit down and persuade each other about the price range of the car we could afford. This involved a little argumentative talking (but only in the persuading fashion) and then some ideas around the economics of raising a family of five, and whether a new car or used car made more sense for us.
  • Third, after agreeing on a brand of car, we both got jittery about having to negotiate with a car dealership. So, back to the Internet, to search for “Ways to Negotiate the Price of a Car.” I found a great website that walks you step-by-step on negotiating strategies and expectations of questions (which it got almost exactly right), and how to turn the situation into your advantage. I also went back for more research on prices, so I would be armed with pricing knowledge.
  • Fourth, we talked through how we would approach it on the drive to the dealership, explaining whose role it was to be the test driver (hers) and whose role it was to be the one who negotiations (mine). We also read again a print-out of the website about how to buy a car.
  • Fifth, there was plenty persuasive talking in the dealership, and the counter arguments that come with the negotiations. (We did OK!)
  • Finally, I am writing this out in an expository fashion to share it with a real audience (I think you are real … pinch yourself for me, will you?)

One of the philosophies of the Common Core is real-life applications of literacy as well as college/job readiness. In our Massachusetts version of the Common Core, the Guiding Principles are all about how literacy impacts life, in its many facets.

I haven’t always bought it, though, and I still mourn the shrinking piece of narrative writing and reading. But I have to admit, my own experience in the real world touches on a lot of skills that are in the Common Core:

  • research skills
  • reading, evaluating, using informational text
  • persuasive, argumentative stance
  • talking and listening as key components of the event
  • expository writing

All of those skills were critical to us walking away from the dealership with a car that we wanted at a price we were happy about. If that isn’t an example of how literacy is important, I don’t know what is.

Peace (with that new car smell),


An Interview with Franki: Digital Writing Workshop

Podcast interview
A few months ago,  I had the pleasure of chatting with my friend, Franki Sibberson, about ways that technology is changing our conceptions of writing workshop. Franki (of A Year of Reading, where she writes with Mary Lee) is doing various interviews for Choice Literacy and she asked if I would try to articulate how my own classroom has changed over the years with the use of technology. (Actually, we did two interviews, so another one may be coming sometime later on)

You can read the interview transcript and listen to the podcast conversation here. Ignore the “ummms,” please. (The Wordle above is a representations of the written transcript. I was curious to see what topics I ended up talking about. I’m glad to see “writing” in big letters.)

Go to Choice Literacy to listen and read


You can access the library of Choice Literacy podcasts through the iTunes store

Peace (in the talking),


Book Review: Chomp

There’s been a lot of interest in the book that has been sitting on my desk the past week or two. Carl Hiaasen is a hit with my sixth graders (and we read Flush as a class novel). When Chomp came in, they kids huddled around the desk, and each day, I have this one girl asking me, “Are you done yet?” (One other student could not wait and downloaded it to her Kindle). Others periodically came up and looked it over with eager eyes.

Yep. I am done, and just in time to pass it off for her to read on school vacation next week.

Chomp is very familiar terrain for Hiaasen fans, and that’s not a bad thing.

Set in the Everglades, with an environmental theme and plenty of humor, Chomp tells the story of a boy named Wahoo Cray (and his friend, Tuna) whose family of “animal wranglers” is hired to help film an episode of an adventure television show that goes completely whacky and out of control. The star of the television show (think of all of those wilderness programs) models himself as a Crocodile Dundee sort of character (complete with fake Australian accent), but only for the camera. His lack of street smarts with animals is the cause of much hijinks, and Hiaasen uses the opportunity to poke fun at so-called Reality Television.

The book begins with Wahoo’s father (his mother is in China, trying to earn money as a language teacher to pay their mortgage) getting a concussion after a lizard falls out of the tree and bonks him on the head. Tuna (a girl) joins up with Wahoo and his father because she is on the run from her father, who is violent and a drunk with a gun, and out to find her.

Mix all of those pieces and characters together with the wildness and unpredictability of the Everglades, and you get a novel that is fun to read. I still think that Flush is the better book. The pacing of Chomp felt uneven to me, and I didn’t connect with Wahoo as much as I did with Noah in Flush. But Hiaasen has his formula: a boy and a girl rising to the occasion to save animals or some environmental issue, while at the same time, mending some fissure of their families, with ample does of humor.

A nice little bonus in the book I got is a fake “magazine” in which Hiaason interviews the adventure show host in the aftermath of the adventure.  It’s a (excuse me here as I reference Hiassen one more time) hoot to read.

Peace (in the ‘glades),


Ode to Sliderule Angst

Bud Hunt put up an image of a sliderule this morning, asking us to write a poem. (It’s part of his poem-a-day visual inspiration project). I know my kids have trouble with rulers (!!!), never mind a sliderule. So, this humorous take is told from a student’s perspective because I had this visual of a kid looking for places to plug in their headphones as they did some math problems.

Batteries won’t work in this analog computer
you placed in my hands today
and I can’t find the port to plug in my headphones
so what music am I supposed to play
while I work out that problem you put on the board
on trigonometry, logarithms and roots?
I’m completely befuddled by this ruler-kind-of-thing –
The device refuses to boot.

The podcast of the poem is here.


Peace (in the rule),

Why Is Facebook So Ugly?

duke fb
I’ve had Facebook on my mind for a few days now, I’m sad to say. It began with some incidents with my students at school, but then shifted when my band –Duke Rushmore – launched our own site on the social network as a way to let friends and fans (!) know when and where we are playing in the coming months. Another bandmate is in charge of our FB page (I am the webmaster of our Duke Rushmore website). And then, the other day, I was working on our Western Massachusetts Writing Project Facebook site, too.

You should know that I am no fan of Facebook for a variety of reasons (mostly on privacy issues). Now, after spending more time there, I am even less of a fan. Is there anyone at Facebook who knows a thing about design or what? I have come away with the feeling that Facebook has to be one of the ugliest sites on the Internet (I know this isn’t true but …) and is slowly coming to resemble MySpace with its ads, and its clutter, and more (and may very well someday hit the trash heap like MySpace.)

Given the huge cash flow at the company, why aren’t they investing in some designers? I look at a typical FB page and find it difficult to navigate, get quickly tired of that standard blue, and my eyes don’t know where to even begin to focus to find what I want to find. It’s a mess. This year, I have been teaching a lot about design principles with my sixth graders and it seems to me that if they were in charge, they would come up with something cleaner and easier to use/read than what Zuckerberg and company have put out there for the world.

Why don’t people revolt? Seriously. Why, in this day and age, don’t people demand excellence in design when it comes to the web? It’s not like good design is difficult to do. (OK, so people don’t revolt because FB has momentum, and now comfort, and people will put with bad design for ease of use.)

What I realize is that Facebook knows all of this (of course they do) but doesn’t give a damn. They see the money flowing and why change a thing (the timeline design? ugly. The new banner picture? very ugly. Horrible, in fact) when millions of people are content to write their lives onto an ugly page that is difficult to manage (I am still trying to figure out how to make our WMWP Facebook page public to the world outside of Facebook. I spent a lot of time yesterday trying … and failing, and thinking, what the heck … this should be easy).

I won’t argue with my band against Facebook, either. It still is a way to get folks to follow us to our shows. But I don’t have to like it.

Peace (with good design),



Graphic Book Review: Smile

I loved Smile. This graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier is so nicely done that it’s hard to know where to begin. The non-fictional story of Raina herself as a sixth grader, whose teeth are are severely damaged in a running accident, unfolds at a perfect pace and through her artwork and storytelling, we come to care for Raina as she dives into adolescence marked by dental surgery.

Of course, Smile is more than that.

It’s also the story of a girl trying to fit in, trying to make sense of shifting friendships, dealing with the pain of periodic surgery, surviving an earthquake, and worrying all the time of how her looks (with braces, and with fake teeth, and more) might make her so different that she will never be accepted as a regular kid. Oh, and throw in a mad crush on an older boy who barely notices her, and you have a “coming of age” graphic novel that is very touching and compassionate.

What works so well is Telgemeier’s writing and art, as they come together with wisdom and lead us in the end not to some dramatic moment or plot twist, but instead, to the understanding that our path through life takes us in many directions, and leads us towards many friendships (some that last, some that don’t), and we need to keep our head up, stay positive, and smile.

I can’t wait to put Smile into the hands of some of my girl readers. They are going to love it.

Peace (with a big fat grin),

PS — Smile began as a serial webcomic by Telgemeier and it is still available online. I prefer the book format.

PSS — On a personal note, my youngest son fell on some rocks in Maine two years ago and we are still dealing with the dental aftermath of that accident. The story here connected with our experience, even though he is still quite young. It was interesting, though, how Raina’s story resonated with ours. And she came out smiling. He has, too. (but it has cost us a pretty penny and will continue, too.)

Research Skills and the PARCC Assessment

Parcc ELA Content Frameworks
PARCC Assessment Model


Each week, I meet with my grade level colleagues for a Community of Practice meeting. Yesterday, they asked me to bring some information about the PARCC assessment now under development as it pertains to our sixth grade. They know I have been diving into the Common Core, PARCC and all that to get a handle on the direction our state is going (moving into full implementation of Common Core and PARCC looms on the horizon). We, as a team want to be ready, knowing that in two years our entire testing system is going to likely change.

I shared the two images above with them. These come from the PARCC site (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), and the assessment criteria and system is still in draft stage at this point. But there is enough of what is being talked about being made public now to understand the general shifts that are surely coming our way, and soon. For us, we have been using our COP time this year and some of last year to begin talking about how to teach literacy skills in the content areas, and certainly, we have beefed up writing assignments and instruction in ELA, Social Studies and Science. We’re sharing and developing common rubrics and communicating more about assignments that touch on the skills, and how to best coordinate those activities together. (We could still do more, though).

As we perused the PARCC materials, it became clear to all of us that we will need to be doing a lot around teaching critical research skills to our students. We know this is a weak area for us.  And in talking to other teachers and working in other districts, this seems to be a common area of weakness.

We’re lucky in that our librarian/media specialist does work with our students around issues of research and citation, but her curriculum and lessons are fairly isolated activities. In other words, her unit is not really tied to an authentic assignment in the sixth grade classroom. I’ll be doing a bigger push this spring in ELA classes around research strategies, the Internet as a source, and citation as part of an environmental essay/multimedia project that brings together a lot of components from the entire year around writing. In the past, I have touched on these issues of research but focused mostly on the writing.

With PARCC and the Common Core, research is clearly a big part of the learning, and students must use what they have found to create a powerful argument on a topic. If you look at the Assessment Chart, you can see that a large project is the main assessment of skills under PARCC. Research and argument is at the heart of the expectations, as far as I can tell.

Talking with my colleagues made it clear we all have some work to do in this area. I think we are up for the challenge even as we are wary of the shifts in the political winds. We see the benefits of some of the changes — research is important; argumentative writing is powerful; literacy in all content area classes is crucial; etc. — yet we remain uncertain of where it will all shake out.

Peace (in the research),

The ‘Draw a Stickman’ Interactive Activities

If you have an interactive board, use these two stories at Draw A Stickman (the second episode is fairly new) to get kids up at the board, drawing and talking about the stories that unfold. It’s a great activity, and you will have a class of fully engaged students, for sure. I’ve used the sites to talk about protagonist and antagonist, foreshadowing and story arc. I guess there are Apps, too (and a student said it had a different ending) of the activity.

Go to the site and start creating!

Peace (in the sharing),


Slice of Life: That Ol’ Ball Game

It’s funny. One theme that DID not come up in my Slice of Life challenge with Two Writing Teachers as a topic last month was youth baseball, which has been a consistent topic to write about over the last few years as I help one or more of my sons’ Little League baseball teams, and all that begins in March. I usually write about the evaluation day, and then the team lottery, and more. But this year, I got sidetracked with other topics.

Last night, our team came together for the very first practice of the year. It was a chilly but mostly sunny evening, and after introductions and a little team history (we were the “the little team that could” last year when a mediocre regular season turned into one of those magical runs in the playoffs that landed us in the championship game that went into an unprecedented extra innings — we finally lost, but what a game!).

It’s too early say how this team will come together this season but the older kids (including my son) are anxious to get things going (he and I have been throwing a ball around for weeks now) and already began to emerge last  night as leaders with the younger kids, who are nervous about moving up to this level with faster pitching and quicker bats. We spent much of the night allowing them all a chance to bat, and hit, and have fun.

Our head coach gave out a clear message: “We’re going to work on skills so you can improve your game but we’re going to have fun. And if you feel like we’re not having fun, you need to let me know so us coaches can make some changes.” And he is serious. Serious about fun. We’ll see how it goes. All I know is that the crack of the bats and the pounding of the ball in the gloves is as much a signal of Spring as those flowers trying to work their way up to the sun.

Peace (on the field),


Writing a Poem

Inspired (again) by Bud the Teacher:

Take wing –
Take heed –
Find the wind that leads you forward –
Take care –
Take stock –
Your journey ahead is marked by what it is you have left behind you after all this time –
Protection –
Hardly worn yet battered by the breezes, shaken yet never torn from where it stood among the trees –
You emerged anew as a child born again –
Take flight –
Take care –
Be gone now and follow the slow arc of the Earth towards your destination-
Take wing –

And the podcast version:


Peace (in the poems),