Introducing Literary Characters: A student podcast project

We’ve been working hard on character traits with our independent reading, pushing into different ways to view the characters in the novels they have chosen to read. One activity is have students introduce a character to an audience. In this case, the audience is the world, as we used our iPods and Cinch to podcast their piece of writing about a character. I gave them a basic framework and an example of my own, and then they worked on the writing and then recorded their introductions.

Here is a sample mix of some of the student voices:


Our podcasts can be found over at our classroom home at Cinch.

Visit the Norris student at Cinch

Peace (in the sharing),


Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Cabin Fever

Diary Wimpy Kid Cabin Fever

On the day I handed my 11 year old son the release of the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — Cabin Fever — he was done within an hour and had passed it to his older brother, who was done with the book within 45 minutes.  My youngest son took it up and told me he was “just reading the comics.” Well, I asked the older boys? Is it any good?

“There’s no story. Or at least, not until the end,” one boy complained.

“It had some funny bits. But I already forget what it was about,” the other added.

And so it goes. The excitement over the recent installment of a popular series inevitably leads to the eventual let-down of reality. Or it may be that my older boys have “aged out” of the mis-adventures of Greg Heffley.

I have long enjoyed Jeff Kinney’s work with the Wimpy Kid series (although I thought the movie was just dumb) and certainly, his success flooded the market with so many knock-offs that book shelves in book stores (the ones that still exist) are weighed down with text/illustration humor novels aimed at elementary and middle school readers. I have even used part of the “blank” book he put out a few years ago with various writing and drawing prompts for his readers. There’s some fun activities in there.

This latest edition to the series is, as my boys note, sort of a bit too much fluff and not enough story to hold the thing together. My students who ordered the book early and then devoured it … had similar reviews. And they were disappointed, particularly given the build-up within Scholastic (order now! wait five weeks!).

Which is not to say there are not funny moments in this book. Kinney’s too good to be a complete let-down. Topics such as playground safety in schools (Result? removing all playground structures), anti-bullying workshops (Greg feels sorry for the bully), gaming (the use of Net Kritterz is pretty funny satire at the state of gaming and commerce), nut-free cafeteria zones (leads to crowded tables for everyone else), nutrition in schools and the inclusion of graphic novels in the library.

But I wonder if Kinney needs another outlet for his humor and whether the Wimpy Kid has run its course. I am certain that Kinney will find his footing, though, and I remain a fan of his as a writer and humorous dude.

Peace (with the Kid),

PS — by the way, did you see this great parody of President Obama and the Wimpy KId series in the Boston Globe? Check it out. It had me laughing so hard …. in a painful political way.


Podcasting Activity: Introducing … Literary Characters

As we are on the middle of a six week independent reading unit, one topic of discussion is character analysis and character traits. Yesterday, I had my students writing an “introduction” to a character from the book they are reading. On Monday, we will be using our Ipod Touch devices and the Cinch app to record a podcast version of their writing. It’s a nice way to share out what they are reading and keep pushing them to go beyond just writing summaries of what they are reading. (We do everything but summaries for this unit).



I am reading and writing along with them, and the other day, I finished Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Man, what a book! I know I am late to the game with this novel, which has rightly received a slew of accolades over the years. I loved its use of poetry, and setting, and first person narrative. And the connection to music as a sort of lifeline to the world, and the inner music inside of all of us … wow. There is just so much that is good with this book, even if it is sad and emotional. I guess that’s what makes it so great — its heart is not fake.

Anyway, here is my podcast of my writing, in which I introduced the narrator — Billy Jo — to my class.


Peace (in the book),
PS — here are some of the podcasts from last year


Book Review: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick


For years now, I have been using Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderful The Mysteries of Harris Burdick picture book (the portfolio edition is best) for creative writing prompts and projects. It’s an ingenious collection of illustrations and captions from a “lost writer” whose stories are “missing,” leaving us only with the strange pictures and odd bits of writing beneath them that create many questions. My sixth graders love using Harris Burdick for writing because the illustrations spark incredible curiosity … about the missing stories and about the mystery behind the writer, Harris Burdick. They always want to know if Harris Burdick was real, and I dodge that question with all the expertise I can muster.

Now comes along The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a new collection of short stories inspired by the picture book, but here, famous authors such as Stephen King (and his wife, Tabitha), Kate DiCamillo, Jon Scieszka, M.T. Anderson, Corey Doctorow and a handful of others take a stab at the 14 tales, too. Plus, Lemony Snicket provides his own brand of humorous introduction, casting forth a marvelous conspiracy theory about Harris Burdick and the writers featured in the book. What these novelists spin it out here is just as magical as what my students come up with (although, I still like my students’ stories better but you can put me down as biased on that point.)

What’s interesting to me is how many different directions a single story can go, even if they are all based on a similar illustration. We all have different perceptions and different insights, even if we start or end with the same idea. I’ve noticed this in class, too, but here, these professional writers take the stories on such interesting journeys that even as I was reading them, I was remembering some of the stories that I have written over the years using the same pictures (I write with my students all the time … you should, too). I kept pausing, thinking of the twists and turns on display.

And here’s the thing: Since I had used similar illustrations for similar story writing, it made their writing more visible to me. I was an active thinker the whole way through, noticing a sleight feint of hand here or a quirk in a character that I predicted might come in handy later on in the story or a hint early on that would move us closer to the scene in the picture. It was a pretty fascinating experience.

When my students saw me reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, they perked up. They’re curious, too. The day I finished the book in class during our quiet reading time, I had a line of students waiting to read it next. I have only one copy of the book, but the eagerness on their faces to see what other writers have done was priceless.  The girl who got it first was smiling wide and there was reading envy on the others’ faces. I think I might be making a trip to our photocopy machine one of these days and maybe share a story or two with everyone ….

Peace (in the mystery),


Book Review: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out

On the second day of school this year, two of my sixth graders came up to me, incredibly excited. These two bous asked if I would watch their latest video on Youtube. It was a video that captured them and their friends on scooters, on our school grounds, doing all sorts of neat tricks, set to pounding music. They were doubly-excited when I allowed them to share the video with the rest of the class, and now give me regular updates on their video exploits. The proud look on their faces was priceless, particularly that early in the year.

I mention this episode because these boys were on the back of my mind as I was reading through Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, a collection of ethnographic research studies out of MIT around youth and media and technology that are pulled together in a collective voice around themes such as friendship, family, intimacy, gaming, work, and more. What stands out for me here is how the authors so successfully captured the voices of youth through their various interviews with their subjects. We “hear” the kids talking through the use of social networking, and video gaming, and video production. It’s a fascinating look at what young people are doing, and why they are doing what they are doing in these various ecologies of connections. The sections around gaming and video use was particularly insightful as a teacher, and the sections on the disconnect between parents and their children was eye-opening as well.

It also reminds me that we need to have more of these conversations with our young people in our own spaces, whether that is our classroom or our homes.

It’s clear that the learning going on in traditional classrooms is not reaching many of these media-saturated youths, who see school only as another place to network and not necessarily as a place to learn skills around media production and technology use. After-school clubs and spaces fill that gap, to some degree, but mostly, it is youth turning to other youth for mentorship and collective knowledge around these ideas. They are driven by passions that we don’t always acknowledge or cherish in our schools. What the authors rightfully note, though, is that this horizontal learning of friend-to-friend can also leave a lot of kids out, adding to the difficulties of the digital divide/app gap/whateveryouwanttocallit. Access to technology remains a huge hurdle for many communities of kids.

Although much of the networking chapters revolve around MySpace, I just substituted Facebook in my head and it was fine (although the elements of MySpace that kids liked — such as completely designing your homepage yourself with hacks — doesn’t quite pertain to Facebook, and that lack of personaluty makes me wonder if another site will come along to drain young people away from Facebook now that MySpace is just about dead and gone.) I also imagined that the networking elements described in the studies, now a few years old, has magnified and intensified dramatically for many kids.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who teaches young people, or who has children growing up in this age of media and technology. The collection here is very scholarly in tone, as befits these enthnographic studies, but don’t let that academic tone turn you off. It’s worth diving through all of that to get to the heart of the matter: the fact that the ways in which  kids are learning is changing and most of that learning is being done outside of school. The book certainly made me think of my own boys, and my students, in a different sort of light.

As I was reading Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out, I was using Goodreads as a place to stop and reflect at various points in the book. Here is a copy of that page, which you need to read in reverse order if you want to follow my thinking from the start of the book until the end.
Reviews of Hanging Out

Peace (in the inquiry),


Book Review: Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life

Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life

What is it about middle school? It seems like every book down the pike these days with “middle school” in its title or theme is focused on how terrible, awful, horrendous the experience is (ie, Wimpy Kid series, How to Survive Middle School, etc.). OK, so I admit that my sixth graders have to navigate some difficult social and cultural changes that come as they hit adolescence, and our expectations of them as students is pretty high. But I just put down James Patterson’s Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and I am thankful I am not a character in Patterson’s book nor that I teach in the kind of school that Patterson portrays.


His main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, is a sixth grade mess who tries to stake out some ground by systematically breaking every rule in the book to earn points for his own “game” of points. His family is a mess, too. I wish I could say I liked Rafe a bit more than I did (because I wanted to), but I felt so removed from his character by his attitudes and his voice that I had trouble connecting sympathetically with him. Which is not to say this book is not without its humor. Told in illustrations and text, the novel nicely navigates the inner mind of a character in turmoil (with the stereotypical bully, and both caring and evil teachers, etc.)

What saved the book, for me, is the emotional twists put in towards the end, when we realize a few things about Rafe (which I won’t give away here) and which gives us a more complex character to root for. That element came a little too late for me, but I was glad Patterson did so anyway. I put down the book  hoping Rafe’s future had suddenly gotten a bit brighter, thanks in part to one of his teachers.

Peace (in the muddle),



Comic Book Review: Best Apocalypse Ever (The Underfold)

Most comic collections are just that: collections of some of the better comics from a series as chosen by the writer. This collection of The Underfold webcomic entitled Best Apocalypse Ever is sort of like that, with one outstanding difference. Brian Russell brings us right to the start of his comic — right back to the days when he began writing subversive yet funny comics in the underside of folded paper at his job serving coffee at a church. I know, sounds strange, right?

But if you want to see the genesis of an idea for a comic slowly taking shape, and then transforming over time, this collection — with various written narrative insights by Russell — is the real deal. Which is not say The Underfold isn’t one of the oddest, wackiest comics I have come across in some time (compliment). Between the talking eyeball, the tentacles-instead-of-hands, the breaking of the wall with the reader, and the paper-bag-over-the-face character, The Underfold is an odd assortment of imagination.

From the standpoint of a writer, though, I loved Russell’s ongoing commentary in Best Apocalypse Ever about where his comic started and where it ended up going, and the decisions (sometimes last-minute decisions) that shaped the various narrative and artistic arcs of The Underfold. I felt like we were in a room, drinking beers, and he was giving me an inside look at his creative process, sometimes slipping me a joke on the underside of a napkin.

Peace (in the process),


What We’re Reading Right Now …

Books 2011
We’ve moved into a choice, independent book unit and yesterday, we went around the room in each of my four classes and shared out what we are now reading (I was just finishing up Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson). Since I want many titles in our classroom as possibilities for other readers, I made a list of all of the various books (there was a few common texts: 39 Clues, The Hunger Games, various books from the Percy Jackson series, etc.) and created this Wordle.

I recognized a lot of the titles, but not all. That always makes me curious and sparks some good discussions with students.

Peace (in the tomes),


Book Review: The Son of Neptune

The Son of Neptune

Rick Riordan continues to mine the rich mythology of the Greek and (now) Roman empires for his various Percy Jackson series as The Son of Neptune, book two of The Heroes of Olympus series. brings back the hero from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (spawned by The Lightning Thief). The setting is mostly a Roman camp for demigods, with the backdrop of a Prophecy of Seven that will bring Gods and Demigods together to save the world (later in the series, apparently).

I enjoyed The Son of Neptune as a read-aloud with my seven-year-old son and as in the first book — The Lost Hero — we appreciated the sense of adventure, humor and camaraderie of the three main characters that Riordan focuses in on: Jackson, who has lost his memory but is slowly gaining it back; Frank, the son of Mars with an ancient bloodline and a power he only discovers at the end of the book; and Hazel, the daughter of Pluto, who has come back from the dead and doesn’t care to go back.

Riordan doesn’t really break any new ground here. If you like the Percy Jackson books, you’ll like this one. (In an interesting twist, I was reading Son of Neptune aloud to my son while reading The Lightning Thief as a novel with some of my sixth graders.) If the first books were not your cup of tea, then don’t bother.

My son didn’t mind the rehashing some plot ideas (three friends get Quest, work under deadline, save the world), but I found it a bit old after a while. The strength of the book is the development of the characters, though. Percy is older, a bit more wiser, and we’re not quite in his head as much as we were in the first series. He’s a bit more mysterious, as he grapples to understand his present, his past and his unfolding future. Frank and Hazel’s stories, and their simmering friendship, give a nice depth to their characters, too — my son and I talked a lot about what might happen to these two, and if they would survive.

There are some nice modern touches to the narrative, too. After they succeed on their quest to free Thanatos (the god of death), the god pulls out his iPad to see who is “on the list” for returning to the Underworld (one part of the plot is that the dead don’t stay dead because Thanatos has been held captive by a giant.) I had this amusing visual image of Death with a device. And, thanks to chapter numbers in Roman Numerals, my son now can decipher Roman numbers. Thanks, Mr. Riordan!

My son and I are looking forward to the third book, due next year. I’ll bet you have a few students who would like this book in your class library (or school library).

Peace (in the myth),


Book Review: Dying to Meet You/Over My Dead Body

(My intent was to run this review on Halloween, but the storm had other ideas for my digital connections. A few days late …)

A few years ago, I stumbled into Kate Klise’s wonderful Regarding the Fountain, and loved it so much I bought a set for my sixth grade classroom. It’s a story told in artifacts, which seems to be Klise’s forte, and I loved how its humor and inference and character development intertwined in such an interesting way. Needless to say, my students have loved the book, which is very different from what they are traditionally taught.

I received two other Klise books from a recent book order — Dying to Meet You and Over My Dead Body — and again, Klise tells a story in a most un-traditional way. Letters, notes, sketch drawings, newspaper articles, and other forms of writing are the narrative text of this story of a haunted house, a young boy who has been abandoned by his parents and a writer with writer’s block who moves in. As in Regarding the Fountain, the character’s names are a hoot: Ignatius B. Grumply (IB Grumply), Seymour Hope, Olive C. Spence, Dick Tater, M. Balm, etc.

While I didn’t find the story quite as strong as Regarding the Fountain, these two books in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series (I see a third book is out, too) are nice companions to the Klise archives. Last year, I had a few students who could not get enough of Klise after we read Regarding the Fountain, and one of them recommended Dying to Meet You to me, and then she went and wrote her own book in Klise’s style. It’s hard to argue with that kind of motivation.

Peace (in the artifacts),