Pandemic Poem from the Classroom: Broken Pencils

Tiny pencil

I went in to my classroom yesterday, at the allotted time, and began the difficult process of packing up all of my students’ belongings into clear plastic bags. Everything from every desk. Everything from every locker. Odds and ends. The left-behind stuff of every kid, placed into a see-through bag. Stickers with student names on the outside. At some later date, their families will drive through the back lot, and these bags will be delivered to their back seat, and they will drive off.

It was very depressing work, really, almost like an invasion of their privacies — handling not just school work – graded papers and papers never handed in — but also, the odds and ends of them, the things from friends they kept close and the things they kept for reasons only they might understand. All of it, packed into a bag. It felt like a morgue, really, and I am reminded of scenes from military movies, where what material objects remain are gathered, honored, returned. The locker hallway for fifth and sixth grade were lined from one door to the other with plastic bags.

One image that stayed with me later in the day, hours after I had finished the task, was the pencils. So many pencils, of all sorts and in all conditions. Who knew they had so many pencils? I bet I packed hundreds of them, and many fell to the floor as I worked, some ripping the bag and falling out. All I could think about is, what might still get written? What did we not get written this year?

My poem this morning is all about that.

It’s the broken pencils
that give me pause,
as I label and empty
these steel desk drawers

into clear thin plastic bags
that refuse to contain you;
your belongings ripping at the
fabric of my work –

You’re spilling out:
unsharpened, snapped-tipped,
eraser-bitten, rainbow-ed
and graphite possibilities of
lines, circles, dots, smudges
stories, poems, notes, plays

These broken cardboard boxes
releasing wild Ticonderogas
to the floor, scattering and silent,
as if lions sit in wait

You are everywhere
in this classroom,
and nowhere,
all at once

Peace (packing it up but not in),

Slice of Life: Still Living In An Email World

In some ways, I am built just right for this shift to Distance Learning. I write that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since I miss my students so much and know this (points to computer) will never replace that (points in general direction of school).

But technology is something I have long explored and utilized, and feel quite comfortable with, for myself and with my students, so the shift in the respect of how we do things online isn’t so bad.

Except for the emails.

Even with full use of Google Classroom, which contains discussions pretty nicely enough, the sheer load of emails coming in, from administrators, from colleagues on my team, from parents and family members, from students (from technology companies, somehow temporary avoiding the spam filter to pitch me the next best thing for my students) … it’s all overwhelming at times. I am just as bad on my end of the email chain, sending out regular emails to students as a complement to our video chats, to remind of this and to urge them to do that.

If I am looking at my school email bin and taking a deep breath of near despair before diving in to follow the threads, I wonder how my students are doing with their school email (which is something new for them, activated once we left school for Distance Learning, although they have had other Google Apps for Ed platforms for use all year).

I know for a fact that email is NOT their first choice of communication and for many of my sixth graders, this may be the first time they either have any kind of email of their own or have needed to rely on it for information and connection. Some barely glance at their email. Others are finding it another way to connect with classmates.

I have a colleague who has resisted Google Classroom for assignments during this time and instead, assigns content and asks students to write responses in Google Docs (sometimes more than one each week) they create in their accounts, and share it with him. Just thinking of the avalanche of email notifications they must be getting from our 75 students each week makes me groan under the weight of it all.

We’re still living in an email world. Take that, Tik Tok.

Peace (the bin is nearly full),

Picture Book Review: Let The Children March

One of the many topics that come up when I read Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is the role of young people in the civil rights movement. Although the novel never references the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the movie adaptation does, through the memory of some cousins of the Watson children, and so we spend time discussing how young people took the streets in protest, were attacked by police with fire canons and dogs, and were sent to jail by the hundreds.

Let The Children March, a picture book by author Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrator Frank Morrison is a powerful text companion to those discussions. With brilliant visuals and an engaging story (plus, a valuable timeline of 1963 in Alabama during the Civil Rights era), the book brings to the surface the courage of the kids who took to the streets, the wariness and worry of the parents who allowed the march (code-named D Day and Double D Day) to happen, and the movement leaders who accepted that children being arrested would create tension for the Kennedy White House to finally act against segregation.

The picture book centers on a narrator voice of a child who takes part in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, but it more of a universal voice, advocating for change against unjust rules and putting the self in danger to force confrontation against a police force that was part of the problem, not the solution.

I appreciate how Let The Children March gives those young marchers a voice, and also, explores the results of the march (which the scenes in the Watsons movie does not do because of the time frame). President Kennedy did get involved after getting pressure from the country and the world. Birmingham did end official segregation (if not racial violence, as the bombing of the church that forms the center of the Watsons novel shows. Change happened, even if the results of those actions are still something we continue to reckon with as a country.

Peace (for all),

Slice of Life: One of Those Days

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

The student arrived already grumpy on a two-hour delay day, as if the weather were plotting something against them, personally. They expressed that the bad day had already begun and would likely keep going, probably bound to get worse. All day. Today. There was make-up work to get started on, some daily things to accomplish, their friend was absent, a pencil wouldn’t sharpen, a paper was missing, and so on. All of it evidence of a world conspiring against them, today, this day.

I countered with a cheerful “good morning,” and made sure to check in with them a few times, smiling and being purposefully upbeat (not that I’m not anyway, but still …), and slowly, their mood seemed gradually to shift back towards some semblance of normal. By day’s end, as I was saying “have a great afternoon” when the dismissal bell rang, I saw glimpses of a smile and the carrying of a body that suggested some of the melancholy had dissipated.

One may never know what affects the moods of our students on any given day. What we can do is do the best we can to help them keep some balance and perspective on a swirling adolescent world, through our words and our actions and our caring dispositions. This has nothing to do with academics. It has everything to do with the child, and our role, as teacher.

Peace (even in the dark),

Book Review: Vintage Innovation

As someone who has followed John Spencer for a few years, I have enjoyed the ways he explains innovation, design, teaching and learning. His latest book — Vintage Innovation (Leveraging Retro Tools and Classic Ideas to Create Meaningful Learning) — revisits some of his previous ideas around project-based learning and design cycles, but he looks at it through the idea of student inquiry dependent less on technology and new-fangled digital tools, and more on duct tape, cardboard and deep thinking.

His aim, or my take-away, is to remember that technology may be flashy and the “thing” in the moment — maybe something to hook the interest of our students — but in looking to what’s new, let’s not forget what has worked, and to revisit those “vintage” concepts in the age of the new.

The book explores concepts of integrating more divergent thinking that opens up wonder (as opposed to convergent thinking, which narrows the focus); encouraging students to be local historians and local journalists in their own communities through writing, interviews and publishing; tapping the power of imagination to think through and grapple difficult problems; reaching for the duct tape and cardboard before the laptop and phone; and more. John peppers the pages with his own illustrations, his own stories and his own sense of writing self, which is curious, compassionate and quite lighthearted and funny at times.

Three concepts really stood out for me after reading Vintage Innovation.

The first idea stems from the chapter in which John reminds us that nature and the outdoors provides plenty of ways to think about design (bio-mimicry), to inspire writing, to consider projects to help the larger world, and to use the quiet long walks or getting lost in the wild to mull over problems and solutions, all on their own time. (As a facilitator of the Write Out project, this entire chapter of his is right up our alley.)

Second, John spends a solid chapter reminding us that the teaching of Philosophy soft skills is as important, if not more so, than many of the harder skills of the STEM framework — that the philosophical underpinning of students thinking about problems, and devising solutions, can guide student innovators into ethical and important decisions about which path to take, and it is that point in which technology and other things may be tools for design. (If only Zuckerberg and company had done more of this …)

The final take-away for me is his powerful message that, at the end of the day, teachers are the most important player in helping our students grapple with modern day problems, not screens; that the ability to challenge critical thinking is something that can create magic in the classroom, beyond anything a website or app can do; and that the tools for innovation are easy found, and require neither elaborate MakerSpaces, 3D printers or any of the other expensive hardware that technology companies pitch our way.

“Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But teachers will continue to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas. They will continue to build relationships and inspire new possibilities in their students. When our tools have grown obsolete, teachers will continue to impact lives and change the world.” — John Spencer, in Vintage Innovation, page 224

Peace (in people),

Slice of Life: Hand Dancing

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

The ripple effect of Tik Tok in my classroom continues. Not just with synchronized dance moves — which seem to break out randomly during any down times — but also, hand dancing.

This elaborate, scripted dance of hands is pretty cool to watch, as each partner has a role and the timing of movement and contact is key to the magic. Think of a unique handshake, but add layers of complexity and you have an idea of what I see happening every single day as we wait for the busses to be called.

Many of these are either inspired or lifted from the popular (but sketchy) app that my sixth graders use and the hand dancers are mostly girls (although boys will sometimes try to get in the action for a laugh or do a variation of friend handshake, which is like a simple cousin to the hand dance.) When the dance is done with no flaws, it is sort of like watching something smooth and flowing unfold in the air before you.

When I asked one particular adept students how long it took to learn a certain complicated move that involved the hands going in and out and under, and then fluttering to chest and back to partner, they roll their eyes and say, “hours and hours,” and I have this vision of them, hanging out together, teaching each other how to do the latest hand dance moves and gestures, and laughing at the mistakes.

“Again,” is the word I hear a lot as they play the dance. “Do it again.”

It’s all about perseverance and muscle memory, and connecting with friends with no devices (at this point), and that’s something worth celebrating.

Dancing Hand by antopoke on DeviantArt

Peace (in handshake),

Reading Student Stories by Playing Student Video Games

Video Game Projects 2020This is the time of year when I buckle down and spend time playing the original video game projects that my students have created for our Hero’s Quest project.

Their projects are built around story narrative that integrates a story frame in the design, building and publishing of a video game. Or, you could think of it as how a video game is really telling a story.

I have about 50 video game projects to wander through in Gamestar Mechanic, as I think about how well they did with game design, story development, writing mechanics and more.

Peace (clicking play),


Video Game Design Project: Turning the Lens on Product Advertising

Game Project Advertising Posters 2020

We’re nearing the end of our Video Game Design unit, with most students now finished with designing, building and publishing their Hero’s Journey Video Game project in Gamestar Mechanic. I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks, playing their games to assess their storytelling prowess and design skills. (I’ll share some as I go along, too)

Another element of the game design project is to explore how advertising campaigns are used to sell products (this is one of part of many elements of writing assignments I weave into game design). We deconstruct advertising posters, and then, their task is to design and make their own posters for their own video game projects.

It’s a nice art diversion connected to critical literacies, to learn how to use loaded language, visuals to connect to audience, and informational text about a product. Hopefully, these activities will make them be more informed when they are targeted by companies for products.

Peace (draws your attention),

Slice of Life: No, Virginia, Minecraft is NOT Shutting Down

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

This year, Minecraft players in my classroom suddenly became a ‘thing’ again after a few quiet years. I have clusters of sixth graders talking about building, playing, exploring, and as we are in our Video Game Design unit, there’s plenty of chatter about how Minecraft is different from other games they play.

There’s also been a lot of conversation about Minecraft shutting down. A lot of worry and concern. Questions. Some heard it here. Some heard it there.

This news of Minecraft closing up by the end of the year is false, just so you know, but the fact that so many of my students have heard it and passed it along to each other in our classroom space — never mind across whatever apps they are using — gives me a chance to revisit with them a Digital Life lesson from earlier this year about false information and the viral nature of social media sharing.

And how to debunk fake news.

Last night, I did a little investigative work. I was already wary of the reports because of the “this doesn’t make sense” common sense test — Minecraft, owned by Microsoft, has more than 100 million users who pay a pretty hefty fee for the game. If Microsoft were truly closing it up, it would be more than a ripple. It would be an uproar.

I searched “Minecraft Closing” and saw a slew of articles, including the one I was really looking for at Snopes (don’t know Snopes? It’s a site dedicated to researching news items for veracity).

Snopes clearly labels the news of Minecraft’s demise as “FALSE” and then goes into the back story. It all began with a prank that went viral when an openly prank news site first published it as a joke (sort of like The Onion does) and Google’s algorithm temporarily grabbed it for a news item. Oops.

You know the rest: prank becomes news, becomes shared.

Here’s a Minecraft Vlogger, explaining all this, too (while wandering Minecraft world)

I’ll be going through this thread of discovery with all of my classes today, to remind them of techniques for investigating fake news and to ease the minds of my Minecrafters.

And it looks like I need to add a new slide about this into my Fake News presentation …

Peace (true and truth),