Book Review: Out of My Mind

A few months ago, I was a keynote speaker at a National Writing Project conference down in Birmingham, and the other keynote speaker was author Sharon Draper. We had time to chat during our rides and in-between events, and what I didn’t want to say to her is: Sorry, Ms. Draper, I haven’t yet read your books. So, we talked about teaching and learning and other things. Her keynote address was just fantastic, too.

Now, I wish I had read her books.  I wish I had read Out of My Mind before meeting her because I think I would have given her a huge hug and thanked her personally for telling such a rich and enriching story that touched me deeply as a reader. Like the other book I recently read (actually, I read it on the plane ride down to Birmingham that weekend I met Draper, as it turns out) that reached into expectations, limitations and compassion — Wonder by RJ Palacio — Draper’s Out of My Mind hits your heart in all the right places. If you are not effected by the story of Melody, who is silent on the outside due to cerebral palsy but never quiet on the inside, then you need to have your heart checked out.

I can’t think of a book that had a better beginning, either, where Melody (the narrator) tells us of all the words swirling around her head and how language and understanding came to her at an early age. If you love language — reading and writing — then the opening chapter is for you. Despite her love of words and language, Melody can’t speak more than a grunt, and she can’t really move without a wheelchair, and the world looks at her body and labels her “retarded” because we all too often associate a crippled body with a crippled mind. Melody is out to prove those assumptions wrong, but Draper wisely never preaches, nor does she resort to pity for her narrator, either. Melody is a fierce independent person who is lucky enough to be surrounded by a supportive family and circle of supportive adults who believe in her intelligence.

And when technology, in the form of a special computer that allows her to “talk” to the world through simple keyboarding commands, enters the story, Melody finally has the means to show the world just how smart she is, and nothing is ever the same for her again. She has photographic memory, among other attributes, that she uses to her advantage. Still, she has her share of harassment from other students in her inclusion classroom, and even doubts from some teachers, as the plot moves into Melody taking part in an academic competition and the role of a big sister (an event with the little sister will make your heart skip a beat).

Out of My Mind, with its eye-catching cover of a goldfish jumping out of a fishbowl, is now out in paperback and I am scrambling to see if our school might have some end-of-the-year funds to get a set of the books for my sixth graders. This book by Sharon Draper is a keeper, and a reason why fiction is both a powerful storytelling medium and a way to teach about life. I know that I, for one, will never look at another student in a wheelchair again in the same way. Melody taught me that.

Peace (beyond the surface of things),


Reflecting on New Literacies 4: from NCTE Voices from the Middle

The most recent edition of Voices from the Middle, a journal by the National Council of Teachers of English, is centered around the idea of New Literacies, and so I have been very excited to dive into the articles. There’s a lot of great and interesting research in here, and so I decided I would break up my reflections on the reading into a series of blog posts.

Teaching our students how to be critical “readers” of media is such an important lesson as is flipping the role of consumer to producer of media, and in the article Multimodality in an Urban, Eighth-Grade Classroom, writer Adrienne Costello shares her own exploration around the intersection of digital video projects and traditional literature in an urban school. Costello notes that this work when she began to “…recognize the transformative power of New Literacies in the English Language arts teaching.”

What I found intriguing was how Costello (a teaching assistant at a University working in a public school) and the classroom teacher began to notice how much pop culture spill-over there was as they were exploring the world of drama and literature. And so, they began to bring that awareness of media culture into the classroom by introducing and nurturing the use of video. Students were creating mock news television shows that connected to curriculum, writing scripts for video projects, and learning the rhetoric of video production. They then took these ideas, and began to work them into a larger unit with the novel, The Outsiders, as the main text. Teams of students developed mini-movies based on themes and character development from different sections of the book, exploring the text from a reading and production stand-point.

The result?

“Beyond cultivating surface-level engagement, the dramatic video project empowered students … to create personal, affective connections to the text, to live through those connections in ways that deepened literary understanding, and to experience an added layer of reflection by viewing and critiquing the performance.” (page 54)

Another interesting point to note: Costello reports that many of the ideas used in the video project around theme and characters were later used by students as the source of their high-stakes writing exam later in the year, and they used examples from the text (that were used in their video projects). Those kind of connections are ones we need to highlight as teachers ask, “what does technology bring to the table?” As Costello notes, it is more than just motivation and engagement; it is also deeper involvement in the task before them.

Not so long ago, the art of making a video in the classroom seemed daunting. But these days, when just about every cell phone has a video camera (and possibly, a simple video editor), shooting video has never been easier. And the relative ease of using free programs like iMovie or even MovieMaker puts the tools of creating in the hands of our students. Once you make a video project, and are given a reason to reflect on that experience, you never watch a movie or television show or flash video the same way again.

The experience of creating forces a critical lens on you as the viewer, and that is just the kind of learning we want for our students.

Peace (in the video),


My Fake Commencement Speech: You’re All Hyperlinks Now!

Over at our National Writing Project iAnthology space, this week’s writing prompt (we write every week there) asks us to consider what we would say if we were giving a commencement speech. I decided to add a little humor, and cultural references, to mine even as I thought seriously about what I would say in that situation.

You can listen to my podcast of what I wrote, too.

Dear graduates

First of all, thank you for letting my holographic image speak to you today. I was busy elsewhere, and I figured, if Tupac could do it, so could I, right? You all know what I’m talking about. Your parents? Probably not. I suspect you learned about it from a friend on Twitter, or on Facebook, or through a txt msg telling you to chk ths lnk. If you don’t mind, I’d like you all to take out your cell phones right now and tweet a few lines from my speech. Use the hashtag “hesstilltalkingtous” so I can check it right now from home as my holographic self talks to you. Heck, I may even retweet you even as I am talking to you.

I was thinking about what kind of metaphor I could use for today’s speech. But the more I Googled “Commencement Speech,” the more I realized that all the good metaphors have been used up by the real famous people. I later had to go on eBay to bid on a few left-over metaphors, and this is what I got:

You’re all hyperlinks now.

I know that sounds odd, but think about it for a second. You’re moving into a world that is full of connections, whether it be global or local, and the more the Internet and wired world develops, the more it is apparent that the infrastructure of the Internet — the backbone of it all — is the hyperlink. One thought connected to another thought; one person connected to another person.

If it hadn’t already been taken, I might even pull out the quilt metaphor at this point. But, let’s face it: quilts are the past. Fiber optics is the now. The future? Who’s to say? But if we cast our lives in the role of a hyperlink, of ways to find similarities and differences between us in a cohesive package of intelligent links, then maybe understanding, compassion and development of ideas will be nurtured in us all.

Just think of what the Web would be without links. It would be a land of dead ends. It would be static pages that lead to nowhere, and would be difficult to find. It would be ideas set only in isolation. It would be horrible, don’t you think? So, I think we all need to give a little shout-out to Tim Berners-Lee, the main (but not only) visionary who understood in the early days of the Internet that linking ideas together would be a powerful way to use information.

So, what does it mean to be a hyperlink? It means you have an obligation to the world and it means you have a support system and it means that your ability to grow and prosper is unlimited. Still, don’t be hemmed in by my metaphors or my definitions. Break free of tradition as you see fit. The world is always a better place for the innovators, visionaries and those brave folks who saw something as it is and decided they would rather see something as it should be.

I see my holographic is shimmering a bit, so I want to wrap up by saying, it was a pleasure not being here today. If you lost track of my ideas because you were too busy playing Angry Birds beneath your gown, it’s OK. I’ll be sending you my link later.

Have a good life.


Peace (in the talktalktalk),


Reflecting on New Literacies 3: from NCTE Voices from the Middle

The most recent edition of Voices from the Middle, a journal by the National Council of Teachers of English, is centered around the idea of New Literacies, and so I have been very excited to dive into the articles. There’s a lot of great and interesting research in here, and so I decided I would break up my reflections on the reading into a series of blog posts.

For today, since the article dealt with graphic novels and webcomics, I am creating my reflection on BitStrips. That seemed appropriate.

Reflections on New Literacies

I want to point out that the comic element was just part of the overall use of media, and the writing did not stop on the page. It extended into a networking space, stretching out the sense of audience and collaboration, and connections. I think this is important to point out. When the audience for work is pushed beyond just the teacher, and even the other students in a classroom, young writers and creators are motivated in a different way, and that can make a different in the quality of learning being done and shown. None of the sites and tools used here were done in isolation; they were part of a technology quilt. This is tricky to do — to bring various elements together and make them work seamlessly together — but when done right, it makes all the difference in the world.

Peace (along the panes),


Reflecting on New Literacies 2: from NCTE Voices from the Middle

The most recent edition of Voices from the Middle, a journal by the National Council of Teachers of English, is centered around the idea of New Literacies, and so I have been very excited to dive into the articles. There’s a lot of great and interesting research in here, and so I decided I would break up my reflections on the reading into a series of blog posts.

I admire the work of William Kist, whose books and articles around technology and social networking in the classroom have allowed me to think more deeply about the possibilities of learning experiences for my students. He is someone worth following, and I suppose he probably gives a dynamic presentation at conferences.

His piece in the journal is entitled Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward. This short piece is valuable for the way that Kist frames the middle school as an environment of possibilities, and he culls through his years of experience as a consultant and educator in middle schools to consider the characteristics of a “new literacies” classroom and school.

He notes that such environments:

  • have students engaging in daily work around forms of representation;
  • have teachers talking through symbolic relationships;
  • utilize teacher “think alouds” when considering these different forms of literacy;
  • mix individual and collaborative activities;
  • engage students on many levels
    (page 17)

I like how he also reflects on what this all means. The idea of symbolic and visual representations are key because they are like an umbrella look at multimedia technology, and give us a frame to consider without worrying about the particular tool or site that might be used. The fact is, those sites and tools may change at a moment’s notice, and the skills we want our students to have must have far-reaching possibilities, not in-the-moment possibilities.

“The common feature is that there is time and space created for reading, writing and thinking, as students work on differentiated projects that are assessed holistically and are exhibited and archived.” (19)

Another valuable connection that Kist makes is how mini-lessons in reading and writing and speaking and listening can be aligned to the new Common Core standards. While his chart is not nearly as useful to me as Joe Wood’s Digital Writing & Common Core chart, Kist’s piece is a nice companion to Wood’s because it shows how “time” spent in the four areas of ELA infused with technology are valuable for learning possibilities, as well as being connected to curriculum expectations.

Peace (in the school),


Student Book Glog: Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

I know Terry Pratchett’s name from the science fiction section of my local bookstore, but I don’t think I ever read his books. Or if I did, I forgot them. This student chose Only You Can Save Mankind primarily for the title (he told me) and I hope he got a few hints … just in case. This glog is part of a series of independent books that my students read recently.

Peace (in the survival),

Reflecting on New Literacies 1: from NCTE Voices from the Middle

The most recent edition of Voices from the Middle, a journal by the National Council of Teachers of English, is centered around the idea of New Literacies, and so I have been very excited to dive into the articles. There’s a lot of great and interesting research in here, and so I decided I would break up my reflections on the reading into a series of blog posts.

The journal opens with a provocative question: Are you as “literate” as your students? In the forward with that title, the editors of the journal (Diane Lapp, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey) tap into the idea that media and technology are changing the ways that we view literacy and shifting the ways that we communicate and interact with other people around the world. I was a little worried it was going to drag us back into the Digital Immigrant/Digital Native dichotomy that I dislike so much, but they didn’t.  What they did was frame the way we should be looking at the literacies of young people today, with their cell phones, social networking and more. And they ask us, if not in these very words (these are my words), Are you paying attention to your students?

After asking the reader to create a mental timeline of their own history with technology, they write,

“‘Education as usual’ no longer applies, since new literacies demanded by ever-changing technologies continue to expand … Our reason for asking you to create a mental timeline of your engagement with new technologies is to remind you that the more technologies one encounters, the more new literacies will evolve to shape our manner and methods of communication.” (7)

This piece reminded me of an activity I did a few years ago with teachers in a workshop with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, in which I asked them to create a technology autobiography, and podcast it on a blog they were creating in the workshop. Of course, I did one myself as a sample to share out. I dug it up to share it here.

My Technology Autobiography

The first main article (which you can access for free from the journal website) is called Risks, Rewards, and Responsibilities of Using New Literacies in Middle Grades and is by Margaret C. Hagood. The piece reflects on a year-long study of a cadre of teachers who came together to learn about technology and new literacies, and began to work those ideas into their classrooms. The group of teachers (which included a range of experience with technology from newbie to experienced) formed as a study-group-turned-action-research group, and the technologies used run the gamut from digital storytelling to video production to using e-readers, and more.

I like how Hagood also outlines what they learned through the year, and how other Professional Learning Communities might emulate the experience. She notes that the group began as a study group, reading through shared books and articles about technology and learning, and then started small by choosing a technology, and working on a project themselves. The third part of the experience was designing and implementing a curriculum unit that used the technologies.

What’s important in the telling of the experience is that the teachers were grounded in the research around learning with technology, given time and support to experience the technology themselves, formed a collaborative partnership with other teachers, and then worked (and most likely, reworked after reflection) the ways that technology could be used in a meaningful way in the classroom. The result was engagement by teachers, and engagement and motivation by students, and a noticeable shift in the ways these teachers were viewing literacy. (The remaining question which looms over all of the articles here, and in the field in general, is how are we documenting the academic gains of students who are using technology and being immersed in New Literacies? Administrators want data and not just anecdotes, and if we can gather more meaningful data from our classrooms that shows gains and expanded learning outcomes, we are more likely to make change in schools with reluctant leaders and teachers. That is my soapbox moment, and I appreciate this journal as being part of those steps forward.)

Hagood ends her piece with some observations about how the technology “reframes” the relationship between student and teacher, engages students in new ways, and creates a collaborative classroom environment. She also makes an important observation about how the entire experience (from exploration to implementation) is a key component of a reflective teacher.

“The work of new literacies is always about making connections within and across contexts and people. It is the work of sharing and communicating. Teachers have a responsibility to share their knowledge and learning with others, beyond what they implement in their classrooms.” (15)

I’ll be writing more about the articles in the coming days. Please feel free to add your thoughts and offer feedback, too. Or, if you are game, perhaps you will develop your own technology autobiography.

Peace (in the literacies old and new),


The Collaborative Dictionary Project: 600 Words and Counting

crazy dictionary 2012

Eight years in the making, and our Crazy Collaborative Online Dictionary of invented words continues to grow. When I think of it, and how the activity represents both a learning experience (about language, about technology) and a vertical collaboration (across time), I come away knowing that the dictionary is something pretty neat and special. We use a wiki, and podcasting to get their voice into the mix, to add to the dictionary every year, and some students are collaborating with their siblings (when they were in sixth grade) and already collaborating with future students. It’s like some strange time-warp thinking project, you know?

You can head to the 2012 Dictionary (with just this year’s words) or you can head to the HUGE dictionary with eight years worth of words. Either way, you can get a sense of how my sixth graders have a fun time with language.

Peace (in the words),

Student Book Glog: Scat by Carl Hiaasen

After reading Flush as a class book, many students go on to read more of Carl Hiaasen’s collection of young adult books. More than a few have already read Hoot, so Scat (and now Chomp) are usually next on their list. This student not only devoured Scat (and did her poster on the book) but waited patiently for me to finish Chomp so she could read it as her friend was reading it, so they could have discussions together. I love that!

Peace (in the funny),

What the Duke Rushmore Band is Up To: The Cover Song Playlist

My band —Duke Rushmore — has been learning a bunch of new songs, working some into our set list (we have a gig next Friday), and it’s fun but difficult to learn new material. Just ask any student, right? Not all of these songs will make it to the final round of being part of our material, but we cast a wide net.

You can check out some of the songs that we are learning with this playlist.

Peace (in the music),