Slice of Life: Traditions of the Season

(This post is for Slice of Life, a regular writing invitation from Two Writing Teachers to find small moments to write about, and reflect. Come join in.)

Apple picking 2016

We have a family tradition this time of year. We go apple picking. In cold and hot, in rain .. we try to stay true to the idea that we will all make room in our busy schedules for apple picking. We used to go to this orchard up in our hilltowns, with amazing views of a valley. It closed down after a few particularly bad seasons. So we started to go to another orchard not far from the school where I teach.

But my oldest son is now off to college, so that made an Apple Picking Adventure a bit more tricky. And my sister-in-law’s family, who used to live ten minutes away, now lives in Rhode Island, so that makes it tricky. My middle son works and my youngest son plays baseball. Tricky.

But my wife is determined, and she made it happen.

Sure, we had to drive nearly two hours — first to pick up our son from his college outside of Boston and then drive another 30 minutes to meet my sister-in-law at the orchard found by Googling apples. But we made it happen this weekend and it was great to see the cousins together again, and my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. The weather was overcast but not too hot, and the trees were dripping with apples (the drought has brought a good year for apples, bad year for peaches, I guess).

I even grabbed a few Asian pears from some trees. Biting into those is like biting into a small container of sweet water. They were simply delicious.

It is these kinds of traditions that keep a family connected, even as we disperse geographically. Apples, for us, are always more than apples — they are a reason to find time to come together. Plus, they taste pretty darn good, too. So, there’s that.

Peace (on trees everywhere, in abundance),

#IMMOOC: Listening In from the Sidelines

Missing the M

I’m taking part in the extended online discussions of The Innovator’s Mindset, which facilitators George Couros (who wrote the book) and Katie Martin are calling the IMOOC but I think of it as massive book talk across platforms. Which is perfectly fine with me, as long teaching practice and student learning remains at the center of discussions.

On Saturday, they held their first Google Hangout, but it was just George and Katie and the publisher of the book, Dave Burgess (also know in some circles for his own book, Teach Like a Pirate.) Since I missed the hangout, I popped the video into Vialogues (built for video commenting) in order to closely listen to the conversation and make comments. I invited others in the IMMOOC to join in … but only Terry Elliott jumped on board with me (for now.)

IMOOC Hangout in Vialogues

You are invited, too.

The hangout was OK. I got to hear and see George and Katie, which gives another depth to our social media interactions. I wasn’t all that keyed up about the start, which felt more like a marketing intro for the book publishing company of George’s book (I get it — Dave is an educator who built an independent publishing company for other ‘innovative’ educators — but when Dave is George’s publisher, it feels slightly off-putting to feature your publisher in a Google Hangout for what is billed as an open education environment about learning).

While Katie slipped into Jargon Talk for a bit (an affliction of many of us educators who find ourselves in similar circles), mostly Geroge and Katie had an interesting conversation as they tried to provide some context for what they mean by ‘innovation’ in education. I enjoyed the last part, where they answer questions from the community (but I also think, why didn’t they invite those people with questions into the Hangout directly and give them voice? Is there a chat room that I missed?)

What I am finding interesting, too, is that so many of the participants are principals and superintendents and curriculum coordinators … and many were outside of my comfortable circles. I am appreciating the invitation to dip into those conversations, which I find intriguing as a classroom teacher (there are others, of course, but mostly, the participants seem to be in positions of decision-making authority at their schools).

Thus, a conversation like this happens, as it did on Twitter last night (it went beyond this little bit, extending into a conversation about perceptions of innovative practice).

Peace (slipping in from the margin),


#DigiLitSunday: Before and After (Reflection Points)

Each week, Margaret Simon puts forth a theme for DigiLitSunday and we are at “reflection.” What a great theme. We need to reflect more, and we need to find ways for our students to reflect more on what they have done or are doing or will do. Last year, I piloted Digital Writing Portfolios (although “writing” became more than just pieces of writing by the time we were done — along with stories, they had comics and videos and video games) and a key element of each project was the act of reflecting.

First, they must write a reflection after completing each digital project. This allows some space between the piece itself and the process that went into composing the piece. I find this does not come natural to my students. They need mentor texts and discussions about reflecting. Many struggle with it.

Then, during the Digital Portfolio time, they return to all that they have made over the school year and read all of the reflections, and then begin curating their work. Again, they reflect.

Why did you choose the pieces and what about those pieces spoke to you?

Last year, I didn’t model this final reflective stance enough. I have excuses: we ran out of time in the year, I was still figuring out how to help them use Google Sites for their portfolios, etc. But I know I need to do a better job. If I believe in it, then I need to make time for it.

I was wondering how I can adapt what I did for this following video, where I overlaid a reflection of a song I was writing, with the words of the song in motion, and my voice. I found it a powerful experience to reflect on the process. It helped make me a better songwriting, I think. How might this process make my students better writers? How can I manage this kind of digital reflection project in the classroom with so many students? Those are questions I will need to grapple with.

What is true, though, is the learning itself is often not in the final project we see, but in the process that comes before and the reflection that comes afterwards. By making those compositional points more visible to students, they can bear witness to how much they have accomplished. By making those points more visible to us, the teacher, we can bear witness to the amazing potential of our students as digital composers.

Peace (upon reflection),

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

Looking for a read-aloud packed with adventure and a little taste of steampunk? The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S.S. Taylor might be a perfect pick. My son and I were drawn in by the cover (art by Katherine Roy) and stayed for the story, which is set in some alternative time where, as steampunk often tells us, things went awry with computers and the timeline of “us” has changed.

The steampunk element is light here, though. Mechanical horses, and robotic limbs, undiscovered lands located off the map, and a crazy strange bird that has clearly been the result of some technological experiment … these are in the story, but the plot itself is very human-centered. A family of three children (Zander, Kit and MJ), orphaned after their famous explorer father has died in some other part of the world, discover a map. Each has a certain skill that complements the other. (It’s nice when that happens with orphaned siblings)

And we all know what happens when orphans discover a hidden map with secret codes left by a missing parent. Adventure, and the search for treasure and mysteries to their father’s increasingly mysterious death, lead the kids forward, even as they are being tracked by the government agents who want the map and who want to learn the whereabouts of a famous treasure hoard. Soon, the kids and their bird are on the run.

The tale is told well, with lots of character development and strange discoveries (what they find in the canyon is beyond gold) and the moral obligations of keeping secrets from a world bent on exploration of undiscovered lands and the harvesting of natural resources for its own gain. British Empire, anyone? Taylor, the writer, keeps us engaged with cliffhangers.

I would recommend The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon to middle school and upper elementary readers. It’s a solid read-aloud, if a bit lengthy. My son and I have the second book in the series (The Secret of King Triton’s Lair) waiting in our library for pick-up today.

We’re off on another adventure ….

Peace (off the map but in our world),

Writing in Circles for Dot Day

Dot Day Invite

Yesterday was International Dot Day, and this is the first year I had my students join the millions (6.6 million from 139 countries, in fact) people making circles and dots as a way to nurture a sense of creativity and imagination. The Dot Day idea stems from a picture book by Peter Reynolds, called The Dot. We connected with Peter and his brother, Paul, last school year, and we hope to do so again this year.

I decided to have my students write short one-paragraph stories on a circular theme — the story could have circular objects or have some other element of a circle — and then we used Visual Poetry to “draw with the words as ink.” That concept really intrigued them and blew them away. Finally, I had them upload their visual stories to a collaborative Padlet site, which has become this very cool digital wall of circle stories.

dot day circle screenshot

Watching them write, and then watching them paint, and then watching them navigate the download/upload instructions has given me a lot of insight into them as learners already. They were fully engaged in this, partially because they knew their work (which we were tweeting out during the day from our classroom Twitter account) was part of a global conversation about creativity. Their stories were in the mix.

That’s one element of Connected Learning that we teachers explore during the summer via CLMOOC — that idea of reaching out beyond the walls of your school, into the World at large — and I hope it is just a taste of things to come this year for us. Certainly, we will be doing something again around National Day on Writing and other ventures.

DS106 Dot Day

Meanwhile, Dot Day also took place over at the DS106 Daily Create site, with Dots as the prompt. There were 31 responses. I loved seeing my DS106 friends doing all sorts of strange things with dots, and more than that, I loved extending the connected element from the Global Community to my classroom to DS106 and beyond. All sorts of strands come together at times.

Peace (let’s create it and nurture it),

Make Instruments, Make Music, Make Change

We were in our independent movie theater recently when the trailer for the upcoming documentary — Landfill Harmonic — came on the screen and blew us away. There’s so much to admire in this story — of the way one person saw possibility where others saw nothing, the way they turned to the resources at hand to create something, and the way an idea can potentially alter an entire community for the better.

Landfill Harmonic from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.

I just ordered it (via Vimeo), so I can share it with my students this year and support the cause.

Peace (in the muse),

#IMMOOC: Quotes and Notes at the Start

I’ve started reading George Couros’s The Innovator’s Mindset for the IMMOOC, and I am reading it on the Kindle app. I prefer to read books offline, on paper, so I am wondering about the experience of highlighting and making notes in the Amazon cloud. If you know me, it is not worry about the digital. I’m all about that. But I still think the reading experience losing something when the book is on a screen.

I still prefer to thumb through sticky noted pages and highlighted sections. But I have been highlighting quotes and then adding notes to The Innovator’s Mindset. The same idea, but not the same. For me, anyway. I miss my paper sticky notes. But I do enjoy reading the collections of what others have highlighted and made notes about via their Kindle reading experience.

Here are some passages and lines and quotes that have started to jump out at me from George’s book, and I’ve included my notes as reflection points. Interestingly, I highlighted in the Kindle app (on my iPad) and then had to go into the Amazon/Kindle site of the book to make my notes. I must be missing something inside the app.

Quote: Buzzwords crowd the educational reform movement like buzzards circling a decaying carcass. Many have become enamored with—and lost to—a culture of clichés and a penchant for platitudes. Perhaps no word is a better example of this than innovation. Its frequent use and misuse has led to the loss of much of its power. However, a true spirit of innovation is exactly what our educational system needs to crush complacency, stomp the status quo, and forge a path into a future that is perpetually in flux. 

My Note: The problem with buzzwords is that they lose their meaning. Think of how the word “optics” is now part of the political lexicon. It’s meaningless talk. So, digging into the term “innovation” here will be helpful, particularly if there are examples to back up how George defines it.

Quote: A tool that could change education for the better—a laptop, tablet, or interactive white board—too often ends up becoming the equivalent of a thousand-dollar pencil.

My Note: I am thinking of Interactive Whiteboards that become little more than large passive screens. Our school invested heavily in them and only a few through the building are using many of the interactive features. Some teachers don’t even turn them on. These are expensive pencils. The key is to figure out how to harness the possibilities for student interaction and student creativity.

Quote: We forget that if students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.

My Note: True. I wonder how best to determine that? I’m not suggesting we do a Standardized Curiosity Test (although I am sure Pearson would be all lined up for that contract). But I wonder how to gauge the growth of curiosity over an extended period of time.

Quote: … if we want “innovative students,” we will need “innovative educators.”

My Note: So true, and so difficult at times, and yet, if the school system/administrators set the stage, I bet a whole bunch of teachers are ready to take that step forward. If the message from above is — keep to the script — most teachers won’t vary all that much. They fear for their job. They worry about evaluations. Sending the message — take a chance — shifts everything. Maybe that’s how the audience of this book might be pivotal.

I have made my highlights and notes “public” on the Kindle system, if that interests you. (OK — not sure if that is the right link or not. Good luck).

Peace (bubbling up),

Slice of Life: Generator Blues

(This is a Slice of Life story, which is a regular feature at Two Writing Teachers. Come write with us.)

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

We lost our power the other day. A huge tree crashed down across the main roadway, taking down wires. Sparks everywhere. The police set up roadblocks and traffic was zooming through our quiet neighborhood. It was a mess. And the electricity loss was going on five hours when my wife looked at me and said, We should start the generator.

We were both worrying about the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer, you know.


We bought our home generator about six years ago, after a winter storm knocked out our power for nearly a week. The sump pump stopped working, and well, if you have a basement that needs a pump, you know you never want it to stop working. So we invested in a generator and paid to have an electrician wire the house for it.

And once or twice a year, I kick the thing into gear in the driveway to make sure it can start. But we have never ever had to hook it up to the house and actually use it. On one hand, that’s good. No big storms. On the other hand … we paid a lot to get it set and then we never have to use it.

But I have to admit: it stressed me out to finally have to hook it all up. I was reading my handwritten notes to myself about how to do it — which breakers need to be pushed where, and so on. I questioned my writing. What did I mean “push it left”?  The last thing I wanted was to be fooling around with electricity.

We did figure it out, and got it work. But you can prob guess the end of this story. One minute into getting the fridge and pump and lights up and running on the generator, the electricity came back on and we were back to normal again.


At least I remember now how it is done. I hope I don’t have to worry about it for a long time, though. (And this time, along with notes, I drew some pictures for my future self.)

Peace (generate it),

Graphic Novel Review: Ogres Awake!

So, this is not technically a graphic novel, per se. More like a graphic story. Ogres Awake seems to reside in that soft category between comic and graphic novel and picture book … in a good way.

This short book, appropriate for younger elementary students, is a quick read, and it comes from the creative minds of the same folks who wrote the fantastic Adventures in Cartooning series. We even see the return of the Knight and his Horse here, which makes for a welcome revisit to some fun characters.

The story revolves around some ogres, awakening from a nap, and the destruction they will certainly cause when they get up because ogres, as you should know, wake up very, very hungry. The Knight wants to ready the kingdom’s weapons and armies to battle the ogres. He envisions swordfights and dashing adventures on the battlefield. The King has other ideas … and so the soup gets put on the kettle.

There are some hilarious scenes with the Knight as he misunderstands what’s going on as the King enlists him. The Knight’s “battle” against the giant pile of potatoes that need peeling (For King! For Country!) is pretty hilarious, and the gentle humor that the writers have imbued in this story is sweet. Plus, the book’s use of the comic elements to tell the story — with panels and perspectives and more –makes Ogres Awake a nice addition to anyone’s graphic novel (eh, story) collection.

Finally, there is also the kind of added bonus we expect from Adventures in Cartooning crew: the inside covers of Ogres Awake features drawing lessons for readers to follow so that they can make the Knight in many poses (including, playing a tuba and boogie woogie-ing), Edward the horse, the gnomes of the King, and the Ogres.

Peace (with food not war),


#IMMOOC: Go and Find Out

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

Thanks to Sheri Edwards, I am hopping back into another MOOC. This time, it is the IMOOC (or Innovator Mindset MOOC), and I am curious. It is co-facilitated by Katie Martin, whom I don’t know, and George Couros, whose name is well known to me but with whom I have not interacted (as far as my addled brain can remember) before this weekend.

Already, I find myself wondering about the term “innovation” and what that looks like in the classroom. I know, I still have to read George’s book — The Innovator’s Mindset — I’ve just started it. Sometimes, we get so bombarded by terms that they lose their meaning. Disruption. Innovation. Change. Action Research. Inquiry-based Learning.

So I am happy to dig into the term and the ideas with others in the MOOC, and see what there is to be seen below the surface. And I see, after reading just the start of the book, that this is a central question that George hones in on.

Defining Innovation #immooc

For myself, I see innovation in my classroom has a slow-moving thing. It evolves over time, not in some sudden herky-jerky motion. And stand-deliver professional development is not going to cut it, either. We educators have to dive in, experience it, react and reflect, and wonder about it. We have to live it ourselves before we ask our students to live it. Or, we have to pay attention to the lives of our students, and innovate from there. This is the heart of the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) experience.

The reason for the slow bubbling is that I need time to reflect on changes that I bring into my classroom. I need to react, and wonder, and tinker. When I think of the term, innovation, I often think to technology that causes the world to reconsider what has come behind us and wonder what is coming ahead. I also know that innovative ideas do not have to revolve around technology but tech is the first thing that comes to mind these days. Perhaps we need to uncouple those terms from each other, in order to broaden out our understanding.

And, despite my conceptual thinking of instant disruption, innovation is not often all that sudden. Not that dramatic. Maybe it is really is more about a slow revolution. What does that look like in my classroom?

I think back to a picture book project with my sixth graders that has evolved into something completely different over time through innovative practice, brought on by curiosity and a shifting landscape of platforms. Our picture book project began in my first year of teaching (15 years ago), with colored pencils and paper, and a stapler as the binder. We shared with each other.

Then, about four years later, we moved to Powerpoint, to create slideshows that were really picture books (slides were pages), and we wove in science and math themes as part of the storytelling devices. We shared with each other, and younger grades in our school, and families.

Finally, about five years ago, we shifted to creating and publishing science-based video games, keeping our focus on literacies and science, but using the lure of video game design to hook students as creators and makers of digital content for an authentic audience. We shared with each other, other students in our school, families and to the larger game-playing world (in Gamestar Mechanic).

Notice how this shift took many, many years to make. Part of it was technology — could I have had students designing and publishing video games early on? I don’t think so. The technology wasn’t available for what I needed to do, and for the entry points needed for my sixth graders.

And I wasn’t ready for it, either. I needed to immerse myself into gaming, and think through what it might look like in the classroom. I had to make my own video games, and then envision the learning moments. (See our website where we shared resources on video game design and tracked our first year of the project)

I wonder: what’s next with this idea? Where do I go from here? And, as important, do I? Should I even innovate further? I’m nowhere ready for it, but Augmented Reality might be a logical innovative step forward (or perhaps it is just another false excitement) for our science-based storytelling. Could we make Google Cardboard goggles and create some interactive science/storytelling experience? How in the world would I even approach it, though? I don’t know. Not yet.

That’s one of the interesting elements of being an educator. We go and find out. And then we innovate.

Rikki Tikki: Go and Find Out

Peace (dipping in),