Two Views of Writing: Woody Allen and John McPhee

Check out this view of Woody Allen, old-school writer.

As I was watching it, I was reminded of an article I had just read in The New Yorker by John McPhee, who writes about how he writes in a piece called “Structure.” (I think it is part of the paid archive now, so may want to go to your local library — you still have one, right? — to check it out). McPhee brings us right into his whole planning and writing of longer non-fiction pieces, showing off visual structures of his content. You can see charts, and maps, and visual puzzles that form the backbone of his pieces. His larger message is try to move away from chronological sequencing, and instead, find new ways to structure content in a piece of writing. But that requires considerable thinking, planning … and an understanding of structure.

The connection to Woody Allen is McPhee’s memories of using large notecards and scissors and other tools to begin the planning, until he discovered the personal computer, and had another professor create some programs that replicated what he was doing with paper planning on the computer. So the second half of the article showcases what happens when ideas move from tangible notecards to a specific software text editor that can sort ideas, too.

I found it fascinating, in part because I often struggle with the idea of structure in larger pieces. I have never been able to find a good system for visualizing where I am going with a longer piece, and often resort to the old “this is the first thing …. this is the last thing” approach and McPhee’s illustrations were illuminating in many ways if only to remind me that there are many ways to write a piece, and perhaps digital tools — with their flexibility of replication and movement — might make some of that thinking easier. Or not. Maybe too many choices is just as difficult as too few.

Peace (in the text),

Creating the Infographic: Nuts and Bolts

Yesterday, I shared out the infographic that I created using data from my students’ reading journals on how many pages they had read in the first week of our independent reading. It was really a way to capture the overall reading, excite them into thinking about data and books, and (for me) a way try out infographic creation. A few folks have asked how I went about doing it.

First, of course, I needed data. I had thought of using a massive chart in the room, having students track page each day. But that seemed cumbersome, and maybe a bit too distracting. So, instead, on the day I was collecting their reading journals for review, I had them write down the number of pages that they had read over the past week, or if they did not have access to every book they had read, they could “guestimate.” Those numbers ranged from 20 pages in a week to one student who read 1,000 pages in a week. (And I made no judgement on quality of books, either. It was all raw pages.)

Next, I used my calculator to come up with overall tally (almost 10,000 pages), and did some averaging: number of pages per student for the week and number of pages per student per day. Again, I was seeking interesting information that could be part of an informational display. I thought about adding the numbers of most and least pages read, but then realized that would make my slow readers feel bad about their fluency rates, so I abandoned that.

Now that I had my data, I needed a way to make the infographic. Of course, you can make an infographic in just about any platform. Powerpoint or Keynote work fine, and I realized later that Glogster would work well. But since I was exploring my own use of something new, I did some searching around. There plenty of tools now for creating infographics, although some are more “canned” than others. I went with Piktochart because it seemed flexible enough for my needs. And I found it easy to use. It was mostly Drag-drop, and replace text in their samples, and tinker with colors and design. A click of a button and I had downloaded it as an image file, and then uploaded it into Flickr, where I shared it here and at my classroom blog (which I will share again to the classes today).

Easy. (By the way, Piktochart has a handy resource on how to go about creating an infographic, including the thinking steps one should do.)

Peace (in the info),


Books We Read Jan2013


My Son Turns the Camera on the Neighborhood

My eight-year-old son’s summer project was a documentary video about our neighborhood. My wife and I helped a little bit (holding the camera when he did the interviews and I helped with the editing). But all the ideas of what to shoot and where to shoot, and what to ask, were all generated from his curiosity about the place where he lives. His project has me wondering how to get my students to do more of this.

Peace (in the ‘hood),


Creating an Infographic: The Books We Read

Books We Read Jan2013
This infographic — the first one I have made — captures some of the data gathered from my four classes of sixth grade students. We were tallying how many pages they have read since the first week in January. It was interesting to have them guess, and talk about strategies for guessing, on the total number of pages they have read as a sixth grade. Some thought the number as low as 200 (really? with more than 70 students reading over eight days?) Others thought tens of thousands of pages (really? same facts as before). A fair number did guess 10,000 pages, which is pretty close to the mark.

As I was making the infographic, I realized that I could also do some averaging “per student” so I included that there. Obviously, some students read more than others in this independent reading unit. But I was interested to see how the numbers turned out, and will be interested to hear my students’ reactions, too.

Peace (in the books),

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

I know it’s not fair to compare the powerful The Fault in Our Stars by John Green to Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, but how can I not? It’s not that the plots are similar. But the way that Green pulls the reader into the heart and mind of a character struggling with illness (or in the case of wonder, a birth deformity) follows a similar path, and I could not help comparing in my head the three novels and how it was affecting me — my heart. Green’s novel has been praised for its honesty of character, and I agree. Hazel, the narrator whose battling terminal cancer, is alive with voice in this book, and her truthfulness and toggling between seeing life for what it is and wishing it held out more for her and the people around her is touching.

Still, I felt a bit of a detachment from Hazel, and from her friend, Augustus, whose life force holds the story together. I’m not sure why I felt this detachment because I did care about Hazel and I did admire the way that Augustus believed in living to the fullest, and was touched by the love that he had for Hazel. But unlike the main character in Wonder, where I wanted to reach out and hug and protect  August (almost the same character name — odd, right?) because his inner voice was so authentic, and so powerful  — and in Out of My Mind where you just want to scream out to the world on behalf of the forced-silent Melody — here, I didn’t quite feel that emotion.

Green is clearly a gifted writer (this is the first book of his that I have read) but I felt as if I was being manipulated as a reader through the use of cancer as the plot device. Maybe this is because my own family has been touched by cancer, and its impacts, and I needed that detachment as a reader. I’m not discounting that. I’m happy that I read The Fault in Our Stars and I understand the high praise it has garnered (and might garner more in the coming weeks). For me, though, I found it missing something I can’t quite describe.

Peace (in the book),



The State of Webcomics and The Economist

There was an interesting article the other week in The Economist magazine (which we get at our home through some free subscription that some kid was selling as a fundraiser) that talked about the growth of Webcomics. It was pretty fascinating, as it showed another example of how the flexibility and individuality of the web as a publishing platform is chipping away, quickly, at newspapers and magazines (irony that I read it in a magazine but can share it online? yeah).

The article – entitled “Triumph of the Nerds” — notes that as the comic sections in many newspapers have remained predictable and stale, the quality of webcomics has pushed new limits. In my view, sometimes those webcomics work; sometimes, they don’t. What the article points out is how successful webcomic artists are using social media to nurture an audience, without the restraints of a publisher breathing down their neck, and to try new ideas, new approaches that might not otherwise work in a traditional format.

The article gives a nice historical overview of comics, too.

“Cartoons go way back before newspapers. They have their origins in the caricatures and illustrations of early modern Europe. In Renaissance Germany and Italy, woodcuts and mezzotint prints were used to add pictures to books. By the 18th century simple cartoons, or caricatures, circulated in London coffee shops, lampooning royalty, society and politicians. Popular engravers such as William Hogarth and James Gillray came up with tricks we now take for granted: speech bubbles to show dialogue and sequential panels to show time passing.” — Triumph of the Nerds, The Economist

And it reminds us of the present circumstances.

“The decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet have broken that system. Newspapers no longer have the money to pay big bucks to cartoonists, and the web means anybody can get published. Cartoonists who want to make their name no longer send sketches to syndicates or approach newspapers: they simply set up websites and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. ” — Triumph of the Nerds, The Economist

And there is the warning note, too. Making a living as a webcomic artist is difficult and making a living off it … fraught with unknowns.

“This new world, in which humour spreads instantly and globally, threatens webcomic artists at the same time as it liberates them. Cartoons can spread around the web without crediting their creators; copyright thieves can sell unlicensed merchandise. Cartoonists need to be entrepreneurs, as well as artists. Online cartoons can be lucrative, but unlike working for a syndicate, they hardly provide stable work.” — Triumph of the Nerds

Peace (in the comics),


Digital Writing: Jogging the Web with Anna

Jogweb Conversation Site
Anna Smith and I have been working on a digital dialogue about digital writing, and some friends and readers have asked for us to provide a more coherent “path” to those conversations. That makes sense. You should know our intention is to eventually create a larger curated resource at the National Writing Project Digital Is site, but for now — in the midst of our give and take — it is all just a series of blog posts at Digital Is. I created this Jog the Web as a way to create a sequential “path” so far, so if you are just jumping in to the discussions, you can track where we have been.

Jump to the Jog the Web project

As always, we invite you to join the conversations over at Digital Is.

Peace (in the sharing),


Visualizing Reading Across Texts and Synthesis Skills

Multiple Texts and Synthesis Diagram
I’ve been searching around for some good information and resources around the teaching of reading across multiple texts and teaching synthesis skills (using evidence from multiple texts in writing). In some ways, this is different than a basic research project. But I have not found much that I find useful (if you have links or ideas, please leave me a comment). This diagram is one way for me to visualize what it is I am thinking about, and I will be using it in an upcoming workshop around reading and the Common Core.

Does this diagram make sense to you? (feedback appreciated)

Peace (in the text and beyond),


Digital Learning Day on the Horizon

In a few weeks, the second annual Digital Learning Day will take place. Check out the Digital Learning Day site for more information and resources, and start planning now for how you and your students can take part in the celebration.

Digital Learning Day, February 6, 2013, is a national celebration of teachers that shines a spotlight on successful instructional technology practice in classrooms across the country. Add your voice and expertise to tens of thousands of educators representing nearly 2 million students in ongoing activities, idea sharing, and collaboration leading up to the big event. Mark your calendar for February 6, 2013 and join the wave of innovation sweeping through our nation’s schools. Participation is free and easy.

The organizers also host a video contest, and here are the winning entries from last year:

Best Elementary School Celebration Video

Best High School Celebration Video

Best Middle School Celebration Video

Best Teacher Celebration Video

Best Teacher Impact Video

Best Middle School Impact Video

Best High School Impact Video

Best Elementary School Impact Video

Peace (in the day),