What They Are Creating: Glogs, Games and Slideshows

Media Choices Essay Project

As my students start completing the essay portion of their Science-based Persuasive Essay Project, they are shifting into working on a multimedia component. The other day, we chatted about the various technology tools we used this year in class — Glogster, Bitstrips, Gamestar Mechanic, podcasting, Photostory 3, and a few others. While they were not confined to the tools we used (I made it clear I was open to other ideas), they have to choose some way to create a companion media piece to their essays.

Yesterday, I did a quick survey with the classes, to determine the choices they were making. I find it interesting that so many are choosing Glogster (57 percent), although I don’t find that surprising, given their use of it during the year. They really do enjoy that site for its multimedia functions, and it allows them to mix video, photos and text together in a visual way. Gamestar Mechanic (25 percent) is the second highest choice, and I will be interested to see how the games turn out. I’ve been coaching a few students about how to represent ideas from their essays into their video game creations. Although I do not teach Powerpoint (14 percent), I am not surprised a few have turned to that old stand-by.

Another interesting point is that not a single one of my students decided to use Bitstrips for making a comic about their topic nor dipped into digital storytelling. I’m fascinated to see how the projects will develop, given my Tuesday deadline for everything to be done and handed in — the school year is just about done.

Peace (in the survey),



Book Review: Mockingjay


And so ends The Hunger Games series. (or at least, until the movies keep rolling out). I finished up Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins in a marathon reading session the other day, inspired by the face pace of the action and also a desire to be, well, done with the series. Overall, I very much enjoyed the political intrigue, the twists and turns of the plot, and the narrative voice of a conflicted Katniss Everdeen. There’s rarely a dull moment in the series, which makes it a great adventure story … for older readers.

I could not shake off the anxiety that so many of my sixth graders have read this series. More than the other two, Mockingjay is incredibly violent — a firebombing of little children, skin falling of bones, heads being gnawed off by “mutts,” and too many graphic scenes to really relay here. I’m not a prude when it comes to using violence in stories I read, and the violence is part of the narrative landscape of these books, but I don’t think it is appropriate reading for 11 and 12 year olds. (Of course, if you have read other Collins’ novels, you know this is the norm for her — she uses violence to make a larger point, and couches its use through the act of resistance or outrage by her protagonists.)

The other day, I was chatting with one of my students. She has read all of the books and most of the ancillary “resource” books that have come on the tail of the movie’s success. The parody book has been in her hands for a few days now (The Hunger Pains). She’s a thoughtful, quiet student. I told her I was halfway through the third book and liked it better than the second book (Catching Fire), and she nodded but disagreed with my assessment.

“I didn’t like that one (Mockingjay) nearly as much as the others.”

“Why not?”

“It was all about war, and not about the games.”

What I didn’t say was, that was the point, right? The games are a version of war, just sanctioned by the Panem state. But I think the focus of the rebel attacks on the Capitol is what she was referring to. It’s incredibly brutal reading, even painful at times.

So, in the end, I am not sure what to make of my Hunger Games experience. I am glad I read the series, considering how many of my students are or have read all three books (including a book club sponsored by our librarian), and I did enjoy the story as an adult reader. But I am thinking now of the book campaign by Scholastic around The Hunger Games, and how much of the spring, the book club fliers features the trilogy. Now that I have read the books and taken in the violence, I wonder about my role as a teacher in handing out those fliers and encouraging my students to read the trilogy. I guess we trust Scholastic a bit too much to determine appropriate audience for the books in the fliers. Or am I being too much of a prude?

I feel conflicted right now.

Peace (in the game that is more than a game),


The World of Work and the Common Core

If you spend any time reading through the Common Core curriculum — and I mean reading deep into it, not just the standards — then you come to realize just how much emphasis is on the aspect of career readiness when it comes to learning — almost as much as college readiness, but not quite (I think college still outweighs career in the standards). So much of the learning objectives revolve around getting students, even young kids, ready for their lives of work in the world, and I often have a hard time keeping that goal in mind when considering my 11 year old students (and this is one of the striking criticisms of the Common Core — that it is not so much about learning in the moment but more about learning for the future). I know I am planting seeds here in sixth grade, and I know I want them to have a productive and enriching life. I know I have a part in that. It’s just hard sometimes to see that bigger picture.

This is a very roundabout way to talk about a colorful advertising flier (complete with fake Angry Bird-like creatures on the cover) that came in the mailbox the other day. It is promoting an event for business leaders called “Social Media Marketing Conference” in a nearby city. After doing some digging around on the Web, I found it is being put on by a company that helps businesses with marketing campaigns.

Here is what the blurb on the cover says:

“A real-world guide to understanding social media and using it to generate leads, connect with customers, expand your market reach, create life-long customers, drive web traffic — and grow your business.”

I’m not all that interested in the conference itself, but I was intrigued by the sessions going on. Check out some of the titles:

  • The key to social media success: getting off to a good start
  • Success stories
  • Cool tools and how to use them
  • The art of writing for a social audience
  • Managing your online reputation
  • Monitoring what people are saying about you online

The session around “writing for a social audience” intrigued me. Here is what the blurb says that attendees will learn about:

  • How the social audience is different—and what this means to your writing
  • 6 foolproof tips for writing compelling posts, Tweets and blogs
  • Out with the fluff! There’s no room for it in this new social world
  • Reusing content: A good practice—or not?
  • How to sound like a genuine, caring human being—not a corporate robot
  • Responses can be automated—but should they be?

Those are all good skills to have, no matter what field you are in. I’d love to just pop in and hear that sessions, you know?

I also can’t help but think: those are almost the same titles of sessions in educational conferences I have attended in the past few years, with a few wrinkles designed for the business audience as opposed to an educational audience. These sessions center on writing persuasive text, reading for content, collaboration with technology, and use of informational text and media for purpose. Sound familiar? That’s the crux of the Common Core.

I’m not sure what big point I am trying to make here about education and the world of work, other than noticing that businesses are expecting graduates to be using social media and technology for specific aims (even as we often warn students about how they are using social media), and I wonder how many students in high schools are considering how their social media lives might help them land a good job. Meanwhile, those same students need to learn the filters that can weed through the drone of business tweets, Facebook likes, and more that are clearly becoming the norm of the advertising world, and growing every day. Our students need to be armed both for getting jobs and for media-blitz advertising, and be able to take advantage of both.

Peace (in the filter),


A Summer of Novels, Bios, Class Reading, Read Alouds and Graphic Books

I am sharing out some of the books in my “stack” this morning as part of the day’s Summer Reading for teachers, which I believe may have started over at the New York Time learning blog and then attracted a bunch of notice from other organizations including the National Writing Project — and folks are encouraged to use the #summerreading hashtag on Twitter to share out all day today … and well, here I am with my pile of books in front of me.


First of all, this is the first year that our school is launching a mandatory summer reading program for our students. I struggled about which book to pick because I wanted something engaging, something most of my incoming sixth graders had not read, and something that would also allow for some neat teaching and writing moments. I ended up withThe Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. What is cool is that I have started a collaborative effort with a teacher in Texas who is also doing the same book with her incoming sixth graders. She had reached out to me, asking for some guidance on using technology in her classroom, so I suggested we do a shared book with our students and use Edmodo as a summer response space for our kids. It’s one of those “grand adventure” ideas because she is new to technology and I have not used Edmodo. So, we’re going to see how it goes.

I am constantly, every day, reading aloud to my seven year old son. We are now in the midst of the second book of The Lord of the Rings, but then we will take a break from that epic adventure to read A Hero of WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi. This is the second in a series about a girl caught up in an adventure on a strange planet (is it Earth?) that is a great adventure. We loved the first book — Search for WondLa — and are looking forward to getting back into the mix. Waiting for books in a series to get completed and published … requires patience, doesn’t it?

And now on to my own personal reading list.


I recently picked up Every Night’s  a Saturday Night, an autobiography of saxophonist Bobby Keys (who has played with the Rolling Stones and many other legendary rock bands). I am a sucker for the backroom stories of musicians, and Bobby Keys was one of those icons of my childhood. When my friends were listening to the lead guitar parts, I was listening for the horn parts, and Keys is one of those over-the-top characters that can easily steal the show and the stage from the main band members.


The other day, I got a package in the mail containing Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? I don’t remember registering, but I won the book via a contest at The Graphic Novel Reporter. I was happy to get it, since I did enjoy Home and have read lots of positive reviews about this graphic biography of Bechdel’s mother. I am sure it is infused with smart writing and storytelling. (By the way, don’t confuse this one with the children’s book Are You My Mother? by PD Eastman. But that one is a good one to read with the little ones. Bechdel’s book? Not so much.)

I also have had Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies waiting my attention. I absolutely loved Wolf Hall, and the narrative devices that I can’t even quite explain except to say that Mantel’s writing completely hooked me into the head of Thomas Cromwell, and never let up. This novel continues the story of the reign of King Henry. The problem with this book is that it really does require a lot of my attention, and summer means home with three boys. I’ll need to carve out some space for this historical drama.


And I have been reading tons of great responses about The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate — so much so that I finally bought the book only to have my middle school son snap it up with a “I saw that at the bookstore” and it has now disappeared into the netherworld of his bedroom. I’ll head off on an expedition to get it back one of these days. It looks interesting, and I do so trust my #nerdybookclub friends when it comes to book suggestions, particularly ones that might interest my students when I am done with it.

Finally, no summer is complete without a little professional reading, right? I am hoping to get a copy of this collection of essays (some from National Writing Project teachers) called What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms. I’m always curious about my fellow educators’ perceptions and experiences.

Peace (in the pages),






Gamestar Mechanic’s Summer Design Program

I shared this opportunity with my students, some of whom really were engaged in our video game design project earlier this year and continue to use Gamestar Mechanic to develop and publish their own games, which is pretty cool. This new summer initiative by the Gamestar Mechanic folks will link up students with professional video game designers, and have them work on developing video games with an eye towards more advanced techniques (you know, I wouldn’t mind doing the camp). There is a cost associated with the summer program, but I wanted my students to at least know about it. You may want to share the idea with some of your gamers, too.

Here is the link to the summer program within Gamestar Mechanic

Peace (in the game),

Book Review: Talking Back to Facebook


My wife saw my copy of Talking Back to Facebook by James P. Steyer on the table, not far from where our teenage son was using his Facebook app to do an update, and immediately took it from me and began reading it. We’ve been sharing it back and forth (I finished it first! I l know, it wasn’t a race but still …) and I’ve been leaving it around for my son to look at. He’s conveniently ignored it. But we haven’t.

(If you want to see my updates as I was reading the book, you can check out the Goodreads site).

Steyer, the CEO of CommonSense Media, comes out strong with worries about the ways the social media revolution is affecting our children, and uses Facebook’s status as King of the Hill to urge parents and politicians to pay attention, and to take action. While a bit strident at times (which will come as no surprise to anyone who follows the CommonSense Media site regularly, as I do), Steyer does a nice job of providing a valid framework for concerns over the ways that technology is impacting our young people’s childhoods. He does acknowledge the many benefits of social networking and technology, but mostly, this book zeroes in why we need to be aware of what is happening in online spaces like Facebook.

He notes that Facebook, despite its policy of not allowing children under 13 years of age to join, does very little to stop it (and I can support that view, given the number of my sixth graders on the network). He also says that Facebook’s continued use of resetting privacy features for users means that more and more children are sharing information that is best kept private. He urges parents to be more vigilant, and notes that when a new parent snaps that first image of their newborn baby and posts it online, they are unwittingly creating the first “digital footprint” of their child, without much forethought as to what that means.

What I like is that Steyer, while giving solid advice to parents, also calls Facebook, Google and others onto the floor, arguing strongly that leaders of those corporations have a moral obligation to protect our children, and they have not yet lived up to that obligation. Instead, he notes, companies see our children as “point of data” that can be manipulated and sold for profit. Steyer says the government needs to do more oversight, but that it also falls to parents to be more vigilant on behalf of our children.

Overall, this book is a worthy summer read, whether you are a parent or a teacher, or just know a young person who is on Facebook. We need to pay attention. As for my wife and I, and our son, we’re going to be having a more indepth conversation about the time he spends on his mobile devices, and figure out more ways to reduce that time. We’re gearing up for an argument, but hope to keep our stance strong and positive. In the end, we’re parents, not friends.

Peace (in talking back to talking back to Facebook),

Google’s World Wonders Project


Boy, Google sure does put out neat projects. The most recent on my radar would be great for social studies and history teachers. It’s called Google World Wonders, and it gives the viewer virtual tours of historic sites throughout the world. Using Google Streetview images, you can virtually walk through architectural sites, ancient castles, and other wonders of the world. This would probably be great up on an interactive board (but give the pen to the kids, will you please? Let them do the touring.)

There are informational links, videos, resources and more about all of the sites being archived on the World Wonder site. Pretty darned neat.


Peace (in the world),



The Choice of Student Essay Topics

I try to build as much choice as I can into our Persuasive Science Essay Project that is now underway to end the year. They get to pick their own topics and they get to choose the type of multimedia project they want to create as a companion piece to the essay. What I can’t quite change is the five-paragraph essay format, because that is its own line item on our report card/standards-based progress report. I’m not quite sure why that is (I argued against the standard being written that way and instead, I wanted more flexibility for longer pieces of writing).

Still, I am teaching in that framework, providing a clear path of organization for them while trying to leave as much wiggle room for them as possible to develop an argumentative, research-based essay that gives them voice. Today, I will begin talking about the multimedia component and as they finish up their essays in the next day or two, they will be launching into that component of the project to end the school year (yikes! not much time left).

I love the range of topics that my students have chosen for their essays, and I am appreciating how the research part of the project is really providing them with a level of depth and understanding. There are some that continue to struggle with an opening paragraph, and formulating enough ideas for a long essay. But others are writing non-stop during class time, sharing their pieces with classmates and asking for advice and revision ideas. This is the time of year when you start to see all of those lessons from the year start to unfold in a more natural way, I think. They understand that this is the last piece of writing they are doing this year and most want it to be one of the best.

Peace (in the writing),

PS — this is the site of last year’s science-based essays.


Inside The InstaGrok Research Tool

One of my weaknesses in teaching is clearly research. I admit it. I’ve certainly taught research skills, and have students use research in writing, but I have never been all that comfortable with figuring out the most effective ways to get my students using the Internet for solid background knowledge gathering and evidence to use in their writing. Partly, it is me. But it is also the ‘wild west’ nature of Search Engines, and the lack of focus that Google and Bing and others bring to the table for young writers.

Still, with the shift of our state into Common Core, which has a huge research component to it, I know I can’t let this part of the curriculum slide. I need to teach them basic research skills. It’s as simple as that.

So, when I heard about InstaGrok, I was intrigued. It is billed as an online research tool for students, which focuses search content, but still brings in video, images, websites, information and more.  (Plus, the site creates an interesting interactive quiz area, where students can test their expertise). And what is best of all — the site archives and collects notes that students want to remember and use in later writing. Last week, I set up a classroom account in InstaGrok (in a matter of minutes) and after a period of “playing around” with the site, I had them working deep on an environmental essay project.

So far, so good.

By setting up a teacher account (which is free, as is the entire site … at least for now) on Instagrok, I can get a bird’s eye view of the research being done by my student, and even glimpse inside their journal, where they are collecting notes. I can pop in, as I did over the weekend, and get a sense of each student’s progress on the project, and notice areas where I need to do a little more one-on-one teaching, or checking in with them this week. And the students are loving InstaGrok, too, and some are using it at home, showing their parents.

instagrok screenshot


instagrok screenshot2
Peace (in the research),



Sharing Student Work: Digital Life Glogs

digital life posters

I was fortunate to be asked by my National Writing Project colleagues Gail Desler and Natalie Bernasconi to contribute a few pieces of student work to their emerging site around digital citizenship and digital life. The wiki site — entitled Digital ID — is becoming another great resource to share with teachers and students around the teaching of using technology in meaningful and thoughtful ways. My sixth grade students contributed a few Glogster posters to the developing section around student-created work.

Gail and Natalie are really curating a site with value, particularly around lesson plans and resources, and an overarching theme of empowering students with technology in a way that gives them agency to make informed decisions about their digital footprints and lives. This is a theme that I have been trying to articulate with my students all year, too. I love how they lay out their rationale for creating the site and provide a framework for understanding that is easily adaptable by teachers. Those reflective stances put the activities and learning goals in context.

Check out Digital ID for more information and for more resources.

Peace (in the sharing),