What We Built: The Holiday Video Game


My 8 year son and I created this video game over the weekend, working a holiday/winter theme into a game experience. I’m sharing it here but also, I am creating a game challenge for my students to see who can created the most inventive holiday-themed video game (with my son, as the judge).

Here is the link to the game.

Peace (in the holidays),

Silence for Sandy Hook Elementary

Today, many teacher bloggers are going silent as a way to honor the memories of those lost in Friday’s tragedy. I am joining them.

On Tuesday, December 18th, there will be a blogger day of silence. We will post the button and that’s it. Please try to not post anything else that day if possible.
We are also raising money that will go to an organization in the memory of this tragedy. The organization is called The Newtown Family Youth and Family Services.
Here is the official description of the support service we are donating to:
“Newtown Youth and Family Services, Inc. is a licensed, non-profit, mental health clinic
and youth services bureau dedicated to helping children and families achieve their
highest potential. NYFS provides programs, services, activities, counseling, support
groups and education throughout the Greater Newtown area.
Please visit THIS PAGE to make your donation.

Peace (please),


Book Review: How Music Works

I love music. I play music. I listen to music. I think about music all the time. So, I was intrigued by David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, because I know him to be thoughtful and interesting. And he doesn’t disappoint here. While I skimmed over some of the sections about the workings of his former band, The Talking Heads, I was intrigued by Byrne’s insights into the creation of music. (I enjoyed some of the work done by The Talking Heads but I would not put them on my “favorite bands” list. And I suspect that some of his former bandmates might dispute some of his stories here, given what I know about the acrimony of the band)

In particular, I found Byrne really shifting my thinking about the ways that technology has altered our relationship with music. Here’s something that I never really considered but now seems obvious: when the ability to record music and share music first began, the way that music was constructed and composed changed to the meet the constraints of the recording aperatus. For example, music on a vinyl disc (remember those?) was limited to a set amount of time, or else your ran out of space. So, songwriters and composers began to write pieces that fit the time allowed on a disc. And listeners began to get accustomed to the set time frame, too, and from that emerged the three minute pop song.

The ways that music was recorded impacted the writing of songs, too. Early microphones were set up in a room, and the band crowded around it, moving closer and farther away, depending on when your part needed to be heard. But bass tones were difficult to hear, and so the sonic construction of the music began to become part of the songwriter’s tools. And this is not just pop music. This was jazz and classical, too. The technology was changing our perceptions of what we thought we were hearing, and composers began realizing the limitations and the possibilities of the technology  to revamp the way that songs were composed, performed, and heard.

Byrne also goes into the way a social space (in this case, CBGB’s and New York City) can influence the creation of art, and about the business of music, which is interesting in these times when that entire business model is complete flux, and he describes his songwriting techniques of constructing songs from the sounds first, lyrics later, and aiming to use unconscious thought patterns as the springboard for a song. I found it interesting because I have done the same thing with songwriting. I just never thought of it through the same lens as Byrne.

Which brings me to the connections with all kinds of writing. One of the things that I remain fascinated with is the ways that digital tools and technology may or may not be shaping the ways we write, and what we write. How do the constraints of the tools inform our choices about the meaning of what we write? How are we taking expectations of technology and pushing at its borders in order to reconsider our traditional definitions of writing? In many ways, Byrne is exploring similar terrain, just with music. This is a smart, insightful book that forces you to move beyond music, and into the larger conversation about composition.

Peace (in the sounds),

No Time to Think: The Informational Age and Mourning

 … how to re-imagine the space

with laughter and talking and learning

in the days before

is where I am finding myself in trouble this morning

as images invade my mind,

and all I can think is,

my youngest son is the same age

as those children.

— A poem I wrote yesterday in our NWP writing space, the iAnthology

Like many of you, I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting in the midst of the school day. We refrained from mentioning it our sixth grade students, both out of uncertainty of the situation and appropriateness of who should be framing such news. But we heard about it from a young substitute teacher who got a text message from a student at the high school.

My first thought: my 12 and 14 year sons are at their schools, and they probably already know about it, and I am not there to help them process it.

Which was true.

The news apparently spread like wildfire through their middle and high schools, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices and word of mouth and the constant flow of news in the information age.  I may be an advocate for technology, and I may talk a lot here and in other places about the power of digital media, but there are times — like this — when I wish there was a huge switch we could yank on to slow things down and give us — individuals, families, schools — time to mourn thoughtfully. Just to stop the deluge for a bit.

Listening to the radio news on my ride to get my oldest son from basketball practice after school on Friday, I was in tears. I could not shake the vision of the terror of the situation, and the sadness that must be consuming the families and the community. I picked up my older son, and then my 12-year-old son, and we talked a bit about what happened, about the madness of the situation. Not much. Just enough for them to know I was there, and they were safe, or at least, as safe as they could be. And that we could talk, if they needed.

“But don’t talk about it with your brother,” I warned.

My eight year old son was at home, blissfully unaware of the news. He’s far from plugged in, and yet, my wife and I knew that come Monday (or maybe sooner), the news of Sandy Hook would filter to him, and he would learn about it, and what he would hear would be filtered through the minds of other 8 year olds. In other words, it would be news from sources that could not be trusted for accuracy.

We hid the newspaper yesterday, burying the headlines in our bin of paper.  Out of sight. But still, he needed to know.

I struggled yesterday with how to broach it with him. I asked around on Twitter. I read some articles that gave advice, thought long and hard, and then, as he and I were sitting on the living room floor making Lego ships during the afternoon, I gently explained that he would probably hear people talking about a terrible tragedy, that some children in a school were dead, and I wanted him to know about it. I gave very general information, nothing specific, and emphasized our need to say prayers and send good thoughts for the families, and keep those kids in our hearts.

He nodded, and said, “Can I ask a question?”


“Did it involve guns?”

Here was the topic what I was hoping to avoid, but I both acknowledged that guns were involved, and then I deftly dodged/weaved around the specifics. I brought our discussion to a close with another reminder about prayer and thoughts for the world undone by tragedy. He looked at me closely, seriously, and asked if our church pastor had heard the news. I said, he probably has, and that he would likely ask the congregation to pray for Sandy Hook families.

My son nodded, thoughtfully, and got back to making his Lego ship. We worked in silence on our Legos, both of us deep in thought. It was the best I could do.

Peace (in the mourning),


Jogging the Web: The Three Cups of Controversy

3cups jog screenshot

In an effort to bring all of my informational resources that I used with my sixth graders as we did a close and critical reading of Three Cups of Tea, I decided to use Jog the Web to collect and curate in sequence what we were doing. You’ll notice that it spans the range of the book itself, to the 60 Minutes investigative report, to Greg Mortenson’s tepid response to Outside Magazine, to exploration of girls’ education in Pakistan and more. I even added some student reflections on the idea of truth in storytelling.

Go Jog the Web with the Three Cups of Tea Controversy

Peace (in the jog),

Student Story Frames of Video Games


Yesterday, I had my sixth graders blogging about the “story frames” of the science-based video games they are developing. I’ve been pushing the narrative element as a way to keep their games coherent and focused, even as they work the concept of geology into their games. Each day, I have tried to make the metaphorical connection for them – that their video game is really a short story, and that the player is really the reader, and how as writers/designers, they are bringing someone else into their story.

Check out some of the descriptions of the stories underpinning their games:

My game project is about the layers of the earth. You have to start out in the inner core and make your way out of the earth to the crust before you reach your DOOM! You need to find your way through each level without dying. You go through the inner and outer core the lower and upper mantle and the crust. CAN YOU SURVIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! — Ally

You’re out gathering berries for supper when suddenly the ground is shaking! The supercontinent you live on, Pangaea, is breaking up! Continental drift is cracking up the world as you know it! What you don’t realize is that your family is on one side of the breaking line and you’re on the other! Get back to them before it’s too late and you’re separated forever! The earth is stirring, and Mother Earth’s monsters are out to get you! Watch out for volcanos, tsunamis, and whatever else is lying in wait! Hurry! — Rebecca

Your master, Alfred Wegner, has just sent you into the earth to rescue his daughter, Laila, from the core. This game has 6 levels, and you must reach the goal block on every level. You may not survive!!! Bwaa-ha-ha!!! — Sarah

Your are trying to get to the sun to stop your enemy from blowing the sun up. You start with Pluto and planet after planet you get to the sun. Once you get to the sun you will defeat your enemy. There will be 13 levels in the game. — David

My video game idea is about the layers of the earth. The world is ending and monsters are climbing from the core to the crust and they are wreaking havoc. To stop them you must travel to the center of the earth to stop the world from ending. — Anthony

You are a scientist trying to be the first person to the center of the earth. You must travel through each layer of the earth so you can collect the proof that you made it to the center of the earth. You need to collect the Ultimate artifact that is only in the center of the earth. It will give you the power….you will find out in the game what it is. Then you must fight through enemies to reach the surface. — John

My game is made around the layers of the earth. it will have at least 6 levels some are hard and some are easy. you will travel through the earth or out of the earth to save yourself or someone else. If you don’t get down there fast enough and save the person a bomb placed by the evil fruit king will blow up you and everyone on the earth will die. So what are you waiting for ? Go save the world! — Rebecca

My project is that you are on a cruise and your ship sinks.You need to get home. You are forced to conquer the plates while they are moving around. Mazes and jumping puzzles will slow you down. — Jacob

My game is based on the layers of the earth. what your trying to do is to play as wacky weggy and get to the middle of the earth to get the proof saying that the earth was once whole. But you must hurry because there is a time limit on a couple of levels and you have to collect all the gems and defeat the monster’s. Don’t lose all your health or game over. — Tattie

My game design is about Pangaea and the large ocean around it. The large ocean is called the Panthalassic ocean. When what today we call North America and Africa come together you were smooshed and shot through the different layers of the Earth, the crust, mantle and core. Now that you are on the other side of the Earth you will have to face many challenges to get back to Pangaea!! — Tyler


I’m looking forward to the emergence of these stories as games … and games as stories.

Peace (inside the game),



Graphic Book Review: Super Scratch Programming Adventure

Some people learn by diving in. Some people learn by reading the manual. Super Scratch Programming Adventure is a little bit of both as it is both a graphic novel of sorts and a tutorial for Scratch animation software. It’s also a bit dated, as a newer version of MIT’s free Scratch software is already out. But I like the way this book sets out to engage learners with a little bit of story told as comics and graphic novels, and then a series of ever-increasing-in-complexity activities.

Everything from simple commands, to maze games, to more complex animation is covered in this graphic manual. The colorful visuals are key, as the reader/creator can follow along pretty easily enough with the tutorials. I’ve used Scratch a little as a way to show students the underpinning of programming. I never found it robust enough or easy enough for many kids to use regularly. But the visual element of how programming works – how systems work, really, as one piece influences another — makes Scratch worthy of consideration for basic animation and programming work.

The graphic story that weaves together the tutorials is a computer science student named Mitch who encounters Scratchy, a cyberspace cat, and a team of Cosmic Defenders — Gobo, Fabu and Pete — who help Mitch and Scratchy solve problems while holding off the Dark Wizard and Dark Minions who want to destroy space and time. Programming skills save the day!

This book is worth a look if you are venturing into Scratch, but keep in mind the updates to Scratch, so not every activity might still be replicable as represented in the book. Still, there are plenty of tutorials online and resources for using Scratch in the classroom, including the ScratchEd site.

Peace (in the scritchy scratch),


Over at MiddleWeb: My Get It Done review

I am lucky to be doing reviews of educational books for MiddleWeb, and the latest is a look at Get It Done, by Jeff Wilhelm, Michael Smith and James Fredericksen. The book dives into expository writing and strategies in a way that connects nicely to the new emphasis on these texts in the Common Core. I created the chart above as a way to think through some of the strategies that the book suggests, particularly around flowchart thinking and making lists.

Read my review at MiddleWeb

Peace (in the book),



Student Storyboarding and Game Design Considerations

My students have been working on storyboarding their science-based video game projects this week as they continue to learn more about elements of game design and then construct their own in Gamestar Mechanic. Today, I shared this list with them as a way to talk about some important considerations:

Considerations of Game Design
(I adapted this from this youtube video: 10 Simple Rues for Good Game Design)

And here are a few of the storyboards, which they do as a draft stage of game design to get main ideas down. I like how it shows some visual thinking and provides me with a talking point with students about their concepts and ideas.


Peace (in the game),