Slice of Life: The Return of the Polar Vortex

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16If you have read my blog over the years in March, you know that our school plays a version of Quidditch that is now in its 15th year, I believe. Each year, each sixth grade class decides on a team name and in April, we hold a full-day Quidditch Championship celebration, and the whole school comes out to watch the sixth graders play.

It’s crazy fun, and we weave in all sorts of art and writing activities into the mix.

I have a whole process for how my homeroom class chooses its team name, from brainstorming to voting. Our main color is blue, so we often have cold or water themes. Alas. But as with last year, this year’s group of students had already mostly agreed on a name before the voting happened (with a name suggested by the quietest student in the room, which I think is great) — we did the voting anyway, just in case anyone had other ideas not yet considered.

In the end, they chose the name “Polar Vortex” — which I like now that winter is nearing an end — over the second place choice — Arctic Apocalypse (which I have a hard time spelling, and which is hard to say) —  and this is our student-created team design that will go on the T-shirts they are making, as well as posters we will be creating in the coming weeks.

polar vortex

And this is how you play our game:

Peace (on the Quidditch Pitch),

Book Review: Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps

This collection of invented maps is quite an exploration, showing you the world in ways that you would never have imagined. It includes The Map of Stereotypes; Maps of Internet, YouTube and Gaming; Maps of Literature, Music and Sports; The Map of Separatist Europe; and dozens of others.

I came aware of Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps after the Boston Globe printed a full page, color version of the Gaming Map, which I hung in my room during our game design unit. I went out and found the book, and the level of detail and perspectives is pretty intriguing in lots of ways. Slovakian artist Martin Vargic (who is only 18, if I have my information right) is behind these maps, and his first map of the Internet went viral a few years ago.

What I love most of all is how the maps turn our view of the world as a piece of geography into something different. The world takes on many layers when we see a vision of the globe spinning in different themes, with different data, with different perspectives. This really is what maps can be about, if we allow ourselves to dream of the world in different ways.

I have hung the Map of Sports and the Map of Music in my room, and my students get their faces close, reading the fine details with wonder, and I appreciate that the book has some larger, fold-out maps that one can take out of the book itself. I would bring the book in, but there are some maps that are just not appropriate for the classroom.

Peace (here are the coordinates),



Slice of Life: Pete’s Pigs, Finney’s Fish, Klotz and Glotz and More

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16We had a roaring good time in class yesterday, as I began a review/introduction to Figurative Language/Literary Devices with my sixth graders. They’ve had bits of it in past years, of course, but we are working to pull them all together now as part of the “writers’ toolbox” for adding more “oomph” to their writing.

And, well, standardized testing is coming up soon, too, and there are always some questions about personification and imagery and other elements of Figurative Language.

We focused in on Alliteration yesterday, using tongue twisters to set the stage for the rhythm of repeating sounds at the start of words. I have this long alphabetical list of tongue twisters that anchor on sounds from A through Z, but the real fun came by whipping out the Dr. Seuss book, Oh Say Can You Say? and after reading a few of the oddball twisters, letting them have a try at it.

Oh my. We were all laughing up a storm as we tripped over the stories of Pete Briggs and his pigs; of Pinner Blinn and his dinosaur pins; of Fritz and his dog, Fred; of eating at Skipper Zipp’s Chip Chop Shop; and more.

Today, we will dig out another Dr. Seuss classic — Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? — to play around with Onomatopoeia and sound words, with a little comic making to use sound effects.

Peace (in the oddness of Seuss),

A Closer Look: Levels of Teaching Experiences in SOL16

sol16I know what you are going to think: Don’t you have other things you can be doing? But I was fascinated by the sheer amount of information and data that was in an opening survey for this month’s Slice of Life challenge with Two Writing Teachers.

I had used the results of the shared survey to look at the imbalance of men versus women writers the other day but then I noticed a whole section where we who took the survey self-identified our status as teachers.


So I counted up the answers from the 300-plus resondents (although a few left that section blank) and then I created a chart to show how so many of us Slicers are well into our teaching career. That’s not a surprise, I guess, but I do wonder how a community like Slice of Life or Two Writing Teachers can best reach out to teachers in the early parts of their career, to encourage them as writers.

I’m not putting this on Two Writing Teachers to figure out, but certainly, as a member of the National Writing Project who leads professional development in our area, it’s an issue we have to continue to grapple with.

If we want to change the nature of classrooms, and improve access to authentic writing activities that counter the narrative of “standardized testing,” then we need to draw in a wider range of teachers, particularly those educators just starting out. No doubt, many of them are seeking resources and mentors and guidance and suggestions. I know I was, and I know that connecting with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project is what saved my sanity that first year.

How can we continue to pay it forward?

Peace (in the think),

Slice of Life: Looking for Winter Leaves

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16Another Sunday. Another round of Manhunt for my son and friends. Another walk with my dog. Another day to look more closely at the neighborhood woods, and yesterday, I paid attention to the lingering leaves of winter. There was not a whole lot of variety out there — mostly pines and Mountain Laurel.

But at one point, I looked off the walking trail and saw this burst of white in the middle of green and brown. My dog and I bushwhacked our way through the undergrowth and some swampy soils to find this small tree, covered with dead white leaves. They had died, but they hung on through winter. Hardy things, these ghost leaves of New England.

Leaves of winter

I found enough variety anyway to create a small collage, which now joins my collage of tree barks from earlier in March, and found sculptures, and the flowers from a brightly-colored bulb show from last weekend. I guess Sunday is becoming my photo day.

Peace (in the lens),

Just Let Me Wander

flickr photo shared by pdinnen under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

I’ve been working behind the scenes to test-drive something related to student writing. It’s been an interesting experience in which the designers have done a solid job, but I have (perhaps wrongly) sensed some tension about how a developer wants to introduce their work to someone like myself, who wants to jump right in.

I am, admittedly, a diver.

I would rather know nearly nothing about a tool or technology before jumping in. Let me figure it out on my own terms. Allow me my disorientation. Let me push up against what you think a user might do. Let me discover workarounds when I find a wall. Let me get frustrated, if I need to. Let me ask for help, if necessary.

Let me explore and wander.

flickr photo shared by @artnabart under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Now, I am not a software designer, so I can only imagine the other side of this coin. Imagine spending countless hours, creating an experience, and no doubt, you’d want to share what you have put into play. You’d want outside voices to validate the work and you’d probably want want to point the visitor to places where you know there might be issues. You’d always want to demonstrate what works.

A designer probably desires so much to be a tour guide, showcasing and highlighting the wonders of discovery. They want to share their expertise and experience, and let a new user see the unknown through their eyes.

But more often than not, I don’t need that kind of guide and prefer to be without one. Just give me a map with some faint outlines, and some murky unknown terrain. Maybe a compass. Some snacks. If the design is done right, I should not need a guide at all. I’ll send back messages in a bottle.

There be dragons here … but just let me wander anyway.

flickr photo shared by thornet_ under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

And this story, while based in some real experiences, of mine is really me, thinking about the learners in our classrooms, right? If I give my students the entire tour, showing all the nooks and crannies of the learning experience, have they really learned the experience? Have they experienced the experience? As teachers, we are designers, too. Set the path in motion and let them wander. Even, let them get lost once in a while.

Peace (in the midst of it),


Slice of Life: That ‘Ol Baseball Glove

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16I almost feel like writing a requiem for my baseball glove. It’s been with me longer than just about anything I own, other than my saxophones. Since college, when I bought it for some pick-up baseball, my Wilson outfield glove has come with me from here, to there, and finally, here. I’ve spent countless hours in my backyard with all three of my boys, tossing the ball. I’ve used it as a Little League coach, on ballfields in our city.

The glove … it has stories to tell. There was that time I left it on the ballfield and a week later, someone at another ballfield asked if the glove he had found was my glove. It was. And it felt like my dog had come home after being lost in the woods for a week.

Many people looked at my glove over the years, asking “Whose huge glove is this?” I never felt it was big. Not until I put my hand in other people’s gloves. Theirs always felt small. Mine always felt just right to me. It’s amazing how we grow to love what we have, right?

But, alas, the glove has not weathered well in the past year. First, the leather ties began coming undone. I could fix them a bit, with a little creative repairs and odd weaving patterns that left the glove looking like it had tails coming off the nettings. But then the leather strands began to snap on me. And even worse … the webbing in the middle began to fray and come apart. That was unfixable. Still, I played with it.

So long friend

It was only when my high school baseball son zipped a ball at me at a speed that required reflex, and the ball almost came right through the netting — it would have come through the netting and crashed into my face — that I realized, the time has come to retire the old man and bring some fresh legs into the game.

Yes, I got a new baseball glove yesterday, and it doesn’t feel right at all. Sure, it’s comfy enough and the pocket seems fine. The new Wilson infielders glove is great. It’s just …. not the old glove.

Peace (in the netting),

Sonic Zeega Poetry Remix: Anna’s Soundscape

As part of the Hear My Home Project, we are being asked to do a Resonance Remix (or, a Sonic Remix — a great band name!) of someone else’s sound files. I chose my friend, Anna, who has been capturing the aural landscape of Philadelphia. I didn’t quite “remix” her files as add a few layers on top of her sound, by writing a short poem inspired by my listening and then adding images and gifs via Zeega. Maybe that is the resonance.

The result? This:

Peace (in the remix),

PS — Thanks to Terry for keeping a version of Zeega alive …

Slice of Life: Good Guy with a Gun

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16We have a lot of artists in our neighborhood, including a handful of filmmakers. Our very good friend has worked as video editor for years with Ken Burns. Another friend has won awards for her documentary films. You can’t toss an apple without hitting a creative type around here.

The other night, two of our neighbors invited us to a “screening” of a video trailer they have been working on in hopes of beginning the process of approaching foundations and other funding sources to complete the film, which is a documentary look at the arming of teachers with guns in parts of the country. They have done a bunch of filming already, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign (that we contributed to), and so the trailer for Good Guy with a Gun (the working title) is excellent, if a little unnerving to watch.

We see teachers getting training with guns, learn about the dangers of having live guns in schools, get images and news clips from Sandy Hook and the NRA, and hear parents talk of the fears they have of violence in schools. It’s a powerful film they are making.

Sitting there, as an audience member taking notes on the unfinished work of talented filmmakers, was a humbling experience. There were lots of suggestions from the handful of folks in the room, but I was reminded again of the craft of filmmakers to take raw footage and create dramatic tension and narrative storyline out of interviews and video shots.

I hope they get some big moneybags to fund the film, if only to continue to spark discussions about guns and culture in not just America, but in the very heart of our communities — our schools. I know I, for one, can’t ever imagine having a gun at my side or in a nearby safe in my classroom. But I also don’t know what the answer is to the increasing violence of our society, short of “more gun control” that Congress is not apt to agree to (for now, anyway, thanks to the NRA’s lobbying efforts).

Peace (not guns),

Slice of Life: Celebrating Youth Writing

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16I opened up the local newspaper yesterday morning to find a front-page feature article about our Western Massachusetts Writing Project’s shift to nurture youth writing programs again as part of our mission. With images and a good story, the newspaper showed students in the act of exploration and writing, and teachers helping to lead discussions on social justice and activities in which students went deep into the well of ideas for writing.

I was only on the very periphery of this particular youth writing day project at the University of Massachusetts, which WMWP funded through a crowd-sourcing campaign, and give props to the folks who pulled it off. But given that there were more schools and classes interested than we could realistically accommodate, I think the success of the day shows how much teachers and administrators, and students, want more opportunities to connect and write together.

WMWP youth writing

We used to do more youth programs in WMWP, including events on campus like this, but narrowing funding restrictions for the writing project, and the required focus on professional development and teachers, forced us to use our dwindling resources in areas that moved away from direct contact with students (although, by supporting teachers, we hoped that there would be an impact on students, of course.)

This summer, I am facilitating two Digital Writing Youth Camps at  vocational school through WMWP that will use Connected Learning as the center design hub of the activities, and the camps for middle school students will be designed and run by teachers taking a graduate level course on Connected Learning via WMWP and UMass. This is new for us, and I am excited and a bit nervous about how it will turn out.

But the focus on youth? Yes. That is always worth celebrating.

Peace (in the write),