Edublog Challenge: Deconstructing an Effective Blog Post

The most recent challenge with the Edublog Teacher Challenge is to find a blog post that we admire and write about it. I am choosing one particular post by my NWP friend, Andrea Zellner, entitled “A Community of Readers.” I am hoping she won’t mind me deconstructing her post a bit. (Actually, she just tweeted her OK. )

Andrea begins this particular blog post with a recent news item (Kindle sharing of ebooks and the reaction that the move has received) and then branches off into how we develop our community of readers that we can turn to for advice, suggestions and feedback. Finally, she ends by asking us, her readers, to write about their own reading community and its value.

What I like here is that her wedge issue — reading and technology — became a stepping stone for something larger — how people read and how reading remains important to our lives, even with the transformative qualities of technology.  She also nicely addresses her own mixed feelings about ebooks and physical books. And then, she reminds us that technology has the potential to expand our reading community (via Goodreads, social networking, etc.) in interesting ways, although this technology should supplements and not replace our reading communities.

I love this bit from her post:

Reading, after all, is a solitary experience. Yet we yearn, especially after reading something profound and transformative, to turn around and thrust the book into the hands of those we know.  “Read this,” we implore.  We can’t contain ourselves. — Andrea Zellner

She also quotes from other sources, and provides valuable links. These are important elements to a good blog post because I can travel ahead or stay behind, whatever I want. I sort of wish more readers had responded to her (maybe you will? Go ahead.) and hope that that will still happen. She posed a question that is open-ended enough to spark comments and discussion, with no real time limit. (The limit? Exposure to more readers.)

In the end, she had me thinking and wondering. Yes, reading is solitary in the act of reading but the desire to share what we have read, and to find like-minded readers (and maybe, not so like-minded readers) is a powerful urge that most readers have. Technology and social media can be part of that community building, but I agree with her final thoughts about physical books being precious in their own special way, in part because they are something we can put into someone else’s hands and hope for a similar rich experience.

I realize now that I am doing the same here, passing her blog post along to you. So, maybe I am conflicted about it, too. That’s OK, as long I keep reflecting on it.

Peace (in the post),

Book Review: Hint Fiction

For a few months now, I have been writing 25-word stories and posting them to Twitter as part of the #25wordstory hashtag. I’ve been enjoying the experiences of this flash/quick fiction and more folks are now also writing and posting their stories, too. I recently picked up this book — Hint Fiction, edited by Robert Smartwood — and found it to a truly lovely little tome about small stories. Smartwood called 25 word stories “hint fiction” because the stories are designed to merely point to, or hint at, larger stories that are not being said.

“… a story of twenty-five words or fewer can have as much impact as a story of twenty-five hundred words or longer,” Smartwood writes in the introduction, later adding: “It’s my belief that the length of the story does not determine the credentials of the writer.”

Smartwood put out a call for these hint fiction stories and was overwhelmed by the response (from published and non-published writers), so this book represents just the tip of the iceberg of folks writing these pieces. There are plenty of great stories in here, such as:

The Strict Professor
by John Minichillo

A card in the mailbox: “Withdrawal: student deceased.” She remembers the name, the only essay in the stack she’ll really read.


The Return
By Joe R. Landsale

They buried him deep. Again.


Noah’s Daughter
By Shanna Germain

“Can’t you count I said two of each. This ” — he shook the squirming fluff of black and white in front of her — “is three.”


By Stuart Dybek

Broke and desperate, I kidnap myself. Ransom notes were sent to interested parties. Later, I sent hair and fingernails, too. They insisted on an ear.

Tell me you don’t get a kick out those. The book contains dozens more.

Sure, on one level, they are quick read. But most will make you pause and think, and wonder about what is going on just outside your field of vision. I notice how the use of titles here (as opposed to on Twitter, where space is a real issue) makes a difference for some of these stories. Here, most titles are part of the story, and if you miss the title, you may miss the story. That’s interesting — how important the title is.

Peace (in more than my 25 words),

What My Students Are Reading

We moved into an independent reading unit this week, and as my students sat around in a circle yesterday and shared their titles and the first sentence of the book (as a teaser), I made notes of the titles that they had chosen for themselves. I have read about half of them, and know about 25 percent more of them, but a few of the books have not come into my radar before.

The books I had not heard of before include:

  • The Secret Society of the Crystal Ball
  • Soul Surfer
  • Dewey the Library Cat
  • Shiver
  • You Wish

My goal is to put this list of books up in the room (and also, at our class blog site) as a resource for all four of my classes, for times when they are in the process of choosing a book to read.

I could not help but notice a few classics on the list:

  • The War of the Worlds
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Treasure Island
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • White Fang

Wordle seemed an apt way to highlight the book titles.

Peace (in the books),

Autotune Saturation Point

I just finished Jay-Z’s Decoded the other day. Although I can’t say that I sit around and listen to Jay-Z, I certainly have heard some of his work and certainly know of him. The book itself is pretty cool, as he works through the thinking behind lyrics and offers up some background on his days growing up in the projects of New York City.

Towards the end of the book, he starts to make a stand on the importance of hip-hip music as it stands now, with a somewhat negative outlook on its very commercialized bent (while celebrating hip-hop’s ability to take over the music world, which it surely has). Jay-Z takes particular aim at Aut0-Tune, which has filtered into just about every song that I hear on the pop stations that my sons listen to in our car. Seriously, I hear it everywhere, and I point it out to my sons, too. (Auto-tune is a computer effect that takes a voice and situates the pitch of the voice perfectly. It also can alter the timbre and tone of the voice. That’s that slight robotic effect you hear.)

Jay-Z sees the Auto-tune effect as having a potentially devastating impact on hip-hop music. While he acknowledges that some artists (Kanye West) have used Auto-tune to their advantage as a medium of musical expression,  the problem is that it is now overused to cover up blemishes — slightly out-of-tune voices.  This glossing over rips something special from music, he insists, and he notes that an Auto-tuned track “…gives you a sudden sugar high and then disappears without a trace.”

This quote says it all: “Instead of aspiring to explore their humanity — their brains and hearts and guts — these rappers were aspiring to sound like machines.”

And Jay-Z notes that it reminds him of something similar — the Hair Bands that took an idea and a sound, and pounded its audience into submission, to the point where it took Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and a slew of others, to come along and dethrone the Hair Bands (Poison, Motley Crue, etc.).

Jay-Z notes: “Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..”

Which makes me wonder what style of music or what kind of bands/artists are waiting in the wings, with Auto-Tune clearly in their sights, ready to take it down ….. I’m sure they are already there.

Here are some more quotes from Jay-Z that I was sharing on Twitter as I was reading. I was looking mostly for his thoughts on writing and making music.

“That gave me freedom to be myself, which is the secret to any long-term success, but that’s hard to see when you’re young …” (p95)

“I’m a music head, so I listen to everything.” (p128)

“….I also make choices in technique and style to make sure that it can touch as many people as possible without it losing its basic integrity.” (p129)

“Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.” (p130) #JayZsez

“…whoever said that artists shouldn’t pay attention to their business was probably someone with their hand in some artist’s pocket.” (p131)

“There’s unquestionably magic involved in great music, songwriting and performances …. but there’s also work.” (p141)

“So I created little corners in my head where I stored rhymes …. it’s the only way I know.” (p144)

“Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens …” (p156)

“The entire world was plugged into the stories that came out of the specific struggles and creative explosion of our generation.” (p159)

“It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, that popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life.” (p163)

Playing at the rock concern “…was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power.” (p163)

“Hip-hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything; everyone gained.” (p180)
“I’ve never been a purely linear thinker … my mind is always jumping around, restless, making connections, mixing and matching ideas, rather than marching in a straight line.” (p180)

“My life has been more poetry than prose, more about unpredictable leaps and links than simple steady movement …” (p191)

“Great rappers … distinguish themselves by looking closely at the world around them and describing it in a clever, artful way.” (p203)

“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people … miss.” (p205)
“… hip-hop lyrics — not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.” (p235)

“Rap is built to handle contradictions.” (p239)

“Hip-hop has created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction.” (p240)

“… when I started writing about my life … the rhymes helped me twist some sense out of those stories.” (p245)

“Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..” (p251)

“I remember the music making me feel good, bringing my family together …” (p254)

“I think for hip-hop to grow to its potential … we have to keep pushing deeper … and (do it) with real honesty.” (p279)

“My songs are my stories but they take on their own life in the minds of people listening.” (p297)

Peace (in my blemished voice),

Some Lines about Writing, Art, Music by Jay-Z

As I am reading through Jay-Z’s book Decoded, I am making some notes about his articulation of music, art and writing. He is very insightful in seeing rap and hip-hop through the lens of appropriation of traditions, I think, and how many rap artists saw hip-hop as a way to tell their story. I’m not sure if that is still the case, given the commercialization of the genre and the global reach, but it was true at the start: rapping and rhyming gave voice to many of the urban musicians’ world that was mostly forgotten about or ignored by mainstream America.

Here are a few quotes from Jay-Z:

In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat.” (p10)

The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat, or the way you breathe ...” (p12)

(I love) … the challenge of moving around couplets and triplets, stacking double entrendes, speed rapping.” (p17)

Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it.” (p54)

A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level.” (p54)

(Poets and rappers) …bend language, improvise, and invent new ways of speaking the truth.” (p56)

Everything that hip hop touches is transformed by the encounter, especially things like language and brands, which leave themselves open to constant redefinition.” (p84)

I’m only about halfway through the book and yesterday, I was posting these on Twitter with the hashtag of #JayZsez and it sparked a number of people’s interest in the book.

Peace (in the writing),

Musical Reads: Jay Z, Keith Richards, and beyond

Like most Christmas seasons, I found a bunch of books under the tree with my name on it. I love that. This year, there were two musical related books that seem at first to have very little in common: Jay Z’s Decoded and Keith Richard’s Life, and yet, I have some sneaking suspicion that there may be some common themes to emerge as I read them.


I have started with Jay Z, whom I sort of know musically but not so much. I’ve glimmered pieces of his life and musical vision from Rolling Stone Magazine, and heard some of his music over the years. My sons were quite surprised I got a Jay Z book (from my own father, that hip dude), but I am finding Decoded to be quite interesting. I’ve read a lot about the history of Hip Hip Culture before, and Jay Z’s tales of the streets and the importance of music on his life — music to tell his story — is a pretty detailed look at how the surroundings influence the music. The book is called Decoded because he literally decodes phrases, references and words inside his lyric charts, bringing us into the mind of the songwriter. As someone who is interested in the construction of songs, that pinpointing of influences in lyrics is an incredible view of the songwriter deconstructing their work.

So, yeah, interesting.

I haven’t cracked the Keith Richards’ book yet, but I know from reading about it that it will bring me right into the mess of The Rolling Stones. I’ve always been a fan of the messy Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street) more than the glossy Rolling Stones.

Actually, one of the books I want to get is Just Kids, by Patti Smith (it won the National Book Award, I believe), which chronicles her time in New York City as an emerging punk rocker in the art scene. It has gotten rave reviews.

But I still need to finish an interesting history of the saxophone that I am reading, entitled The Devil’s Horn, which tracks the invention of the saxophone right back to Adolphe Sax (crazy, crazy visionary man) through the modern times of my favorite instrument (sorry, guitar, you don’t come close).

Peace (in the reads),

Book Review: The Lost Hero

When The Lightning Thief first came out, I devoured it, and then introduced it to my students, who devoured it, too.  My sons loved it, too, as we read each book as a read aloud.

I thought writer  Rick Riordan’s use of Greek Mythology mixed with action and adventure — along with liberal humor told from the view of a spunky, impulsive protagonist — was a fun, lively twist to most of the books we read, so we began to read it as a class book. I have mixed feelings about the movie version (see my review) and the graphic novel version (see my review), and not all of the other books in the series were as strong as the first.

But many of my students were bummed out when that series ended.

This past year, Riordan came storming back with a new series (The Heroes of Olympus) that introduced new characters and a pretty impressive story arc. The Lost Hero pits three new demigod friends together to save the day as Gaea (yes, Mother Earth, but not the kind gentle one we know but the vindictive mother of the Titans and other monsters) is coming out of her slumber of eons and wants revenge against the Gods of Olympus for defeating her children.

Jason, the son of Jupiter (the Roman version of Zeus); Piper, the daughter of Aphrodite; and Leo, the son of Hephaestus must join forces. They do, with plenty of plot turns and character development. Riordan spends a lot of time with the back stories of Piper and Leo (not so much Jason, who has lost his memories) and it is time well-spent.

I read The Lost Hero aloud to my six year old, but my older sons also dove right into the book and seemed to like it, too. (I know, because they fought over the book and hid it from each other).

What I found interesting is that while Riordan confined his vision to Greek Mythology in The Lightning Thief, here he is moving into the conflicts between Greek and Roman Mythologies, and the only way to save the Gods is for demigod heroes of both mythological backgrounds to work together. The Giants who were created by Gaea to destroy the Olympian Gods are rising and only the demigods, working with the Gods, can destroy the giants. But, the Gods have mostly abandoned their children. (Mostly, but not completely)  It only through a plot and ploy by a jealous Hera, who has been captured by Gaea, that a foretold prophesy can begin to take shape with Jason, Piper and Leo at the heart of it.

The book ends with plenty of foreshadowing for what is to come, including mentions of our old friend, Percy Jackson (from The Lightning Thief), who has gone missing from Camp Half-Blood. By the end of this book, the three heroes have a good idea of where Percy is and how to save him. If there is time …

Peace (in the story),

Book Review: Everything Explained Through Flowcharts

I’m one of those readers who loves non-traditional books. Give me something odd, and I am all over it. This is one of those books. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts (subtitle: Tips for World Domination, Which Religion Offers the Best Afterlife, Alien PickUp Lines, and the Secret Recipe for Gettin’ Laid Lemonade) by Doogie Horner is so intriguing, funny and off-kilter that it is hard to explain.

Basically, the book is a series of flow charts on a topic, with hilarious side roads of information. The whole first part of the book dissects each religion around the afterlife, and Horner (is that his real name?) skewers just about everything you can think of. As your finger travels the flow of the flow chart, you’re likely to lose your place from laughing too much. Another section around superheroes is another classic look at stereotypes and how to bust them. A four page flow chart around the topic of “how to win an argument” could be the cornerstone of a debate class, as Horner chips away at every angle of an argument (in this case, that oranges are sweeter than tangerines.)

I brought this book to my son’s basketball practice, and soon, I had a small crowd of parents looking over my shoulder, pointing to things and turning the pages. Forget the boys; we were laughing too hard together. But note: this is NOT a book for kids or the classroom. Some of the flow charts are fine, but others (such as the one about alien sex, and things to say during sex … not really that appropriate).

You can see a sample over at Wired Magazine (which is where I first heard of this book).

And here is Horner’s take on Facebook photos (not in the book, but from the Fast Company website).

So, how might this be a learning tool for the classroom? I’m tempted to make a flow chart about that for another day …. hmmmm. Stay tuned …

Peace (in the info flow),

Book Review: Curriculum 21

My wife is a curriculum coordinator (and media specialists) of a vocational high school, so sometimes her journals and books end up on my radar screen. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, caught my eye the other day. The slant in this book is certainly a bit different than I am used to – how to change curriculum to reflect 21st century skills, told primarily from the administrative viewpoint. Of the various contributors here, only one or two seem to have had any real classroom teaching experience. Most of the writers are administrators or keynote speakers at education conferences. Which is not to say the pieces are not valuable. I’d read anything by Tim Tyson and Alan November, and the themes of global connections, sustainable design and digital portfolios are very important.

I admit that I read this book through a certain lens: I am being asked to co-present a session on New Literacies this week before a conference of Massachusetts superintendent, curriculum directors and other administrators. My task is to talk about my classroom. I am so used to having my audience being teachers that I have found this book helpful to step back and look at the larger picture of systemic change and how that might happen. I went back in to my presentation, adding some ideas on how administrators can support classroom teachers.

Jacobs’ message here is that integration of technologies into existing curriculum is not quite the right approach. It can’t be an add-on. Or even a one-to-one replacement. Instead, we would be better off looking at the larger picture of curriculum, and our expected outcomes of learning, and then work to transform classroom practice to meet those learning outcomes. She suggests starting small, one unit of instruction at a time, but she urges us to move 21st Century skills to the front burner of our curriculum design or risk a generation of disengaged learners whose world will look nothing like the classroom.

There is a very valuable handout in the book called “A 21st Century Pledge: A Curricular commitment from Each Teacher” that encourages teachers to be reflective and forward-thinking designers of lesson plans. The pledge notes that the commitment is not using an LCD projector, or having students write on a computer as opposed to a typewriter, or using an interactive whiteboard. Instead, it is a pledge to thoughtfully use technology to enhance content that can be evidenced in student projects and performances. And while the subtitle of the pledge suggests this is for teachers, she has a long section on what administrators must commit to doing, too, including providing support for classroom teachers, tolerate some levels of frustration, and celebrate the victories.

Chapters in the book include examining how the structure of the typical school day and the design of our buildings and classrooms might inhibit students; considering trends in technology that are impacting learning in the lives of young people; understanding the growing importance of media literacy skills; using curriculum mapping to make sustainable change; and mulling over the shift of the classroom from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning.

The book ends with some thoughts on the “mindshifts” that will need to happen if we are to transform schools with 21st Century thinking. Again, it is not the tools.

  • We need to move from knowing the right answers to knowing how to behave when the answers are not readily apparent;

  • We need to shift from transmitting meaning to students to finding ways for student to construct meaning;

  • We need to move away from just external evaluations (by the teacher, of student work) to more self-assessment, which breeds improvement.

Peace (in curriculum design),

Book Review: What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

I finished What Technology Wants a few weeks ago and I am still trying to sort out all that writer Kevin Kelly postulates in this interesting book which takes a step back from technology and tries to articulate a larger understanding of the world around us and the future ahead of us. What technology wants, according to Kelly, is a symbiotic relationship of sorts, with us, in that we keep developing new ways of using technology as technology advances in order to provide us with new ways of using technology.

That’s the simplified version, in my own words, and Kelly makes it clear that technology– or the technium, as he refers to the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us (p.11).” — is not alive in a living, breathing sense. But by examining trends of technological advancements, in relationship to advancements in other biological fields, Kelly argues that there is a logical and somewhat predictable pattern to technology, even though we don’t know what is coming next or how that will affect us. Like living creatures that push forward over time, the technium is also on the same course, according to Kelly. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the technium is that new devices or tools that have significant impact on our lives are hardly ever used for what they were designed for. This unknown adaptability is key to the technium.

Kelly writes, “The technium gains its immense power not only from its scale but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention, such as the alphabet, the steam pump, or electricity, can lead to further breakthrough inventions, such as books, coal mines and telephones. These advances in turn led to other breakthrough inventions, such as libraries, power generators and the internet. Each step adds further powers while retaining most of the virtues of the previous inventions (p. 38).”

The meaning behind the phrase of  “what technology wants” is that it wants to keep moving forward, according to Kelly, by providing us humans with the tools for adapting technology for our own needs. There’s a certain circular pattern to this argument, which Kelly admits to. He cites Moore’s Law (of smaller, more powerful, technology) and other data models to show how the trends of technology is marching ahead on a mathematical curve. But, Kelly notes, this whole notion of technology being on par with biological trends is complicated — this idea of technology wanting something — and he sees three forces at work:

  • The concept of preordained development — that technology is designed to always improve itself and become more advances, and more ubiquitous;
  • The influence of technology’s history — that what has come before it is what shapes the present and lays the groundwork for the future
  • The free will of us, the people — our choices in how we use the technology is critical is what technology becomes.

Kelly does not always view technology through rose-colored glasses. In fact, he profiles a number of examples of how people can and should step back from technology in their lives, if only to gain some perspective on how it shaping what we do and how we think. He uses examples such as the Amish, who resist the lure of technology for cultural reasons and yet, they are adaptable to using what suits them (as long as it is mostly “off the grid” technology).There is a whole chapter about Amish Hackers that is interesting to read, and shows how complicated the lives of the Amish can be in the modern world. And, it shows how our (my) perception of the Amish stuck in time is not even remotely accurate.

In the more controversial section of the book, Kelly also showcases The Unibomber’s manifesto as an articulate examination of the ways that technology is influencing our lives and the reasons for resisting the technium by shaping its progress ourselves. Kelly condemns the violent nature of The Unibomber, of course, but he says that some of what Ted Kacyznski wrote makes sense in terms of retaining some of our humanity as technology’s influence in our lives takes hold and expands. Kelly acknowledges, and then refutes, this view that technology “robs us of our humanity and steals our children’s future (p. 213).”

Kelly ends on a positive note, arguing that our relationship with the technium opens up new possibilities for our lives and for our ability to be creative, and expressive. “The technium expands life’s fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life’s fundamental goodness … Technology amplifies the mind’s urge towards the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite (p. 359).”

Is that a bit much? Perhaps. But Kelly has always looked ahead at the bigger picture (first with Whole Earth, and then with Wired, and now with his various books) and while I sometimes found myself shaking my head at what he was writing, I was always thinking, always pondering. What Technology Wants will sure get you to step back and reflect on where technology is and where it is going, even if the path is uncertain.

Peace (in the reflective thought),