Audio Letters to the New President

Super Obama

My sixth graders have been working on writing letters to the president and yesterday, we podcasted them reading them letters (which will be mailed off to the White House). Their writing was very impressive, I think, with topics on the environment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, education and, of course, the Obama girls and their dog.

Here is a sample of a few of the letters.

We were too young to take part in the National Writing Project/Google venture Letters to the Next President that took place during the primaries but I think our students feel as if they do have a voice and they seem realistic about the problems facing our countries and yet, they remain very optimistic that President Obama has the power to rally the nation.

Peace (in student voices),

How to insult your teacher and get away with it …


We are in the midst of a unit that looks at the origins and the fluidity of our English Language. Yesterday, we talked about Shakespeare (making the connection between Hamlet and Lion King was an eye-opener for many of them) and about the power of language that the Bard used when having one character tear another one down with words.

So, I passed out some insults taken from the plays and told my students that this was their chance: they could fling and hurl verbal insults from the list at me. Many blushed, others laughed, and then they got into it. The old words rolled off their tongues — not always easily, of course, and they laughed even harder when I noted that they would have some things to say that night when their parents asked what they did in school that day.

In one of the writing classes, I recorded them. I am sure you want to hear, right?

Listen to the insults

And if you are curious about the reference sheet I gave them, here it is … feel free to use it.

Peace (in the power of language),

Puppets, Puppets, Puppets, part one

At long last, the unit on theater writing and puppet shows has ended (it stretched into the new year when usually, it is over before the holiday break). While the focus of instruction and activities is all around the writing of a play script (with attention to theme, character and plot), the culmination is the performance of student-originated puppet shows for younger students in our school.

Last week, we spent one day videotaping all of the shows (21 in all — over four classes) and then two other days were spent performing for students from kindergarten through second grade. I think we had about 13 different visiting classes (some were combined).

I’ll write more this week about how I set up the online video site, but here is a link to all of the puppet shows. Feel free to leave comments for my students. I will be taking them to the site in the classroom on Thursday (hoping the videos will all stream fine).

Peace (in crazy little puppets),

Skyping through the world

I saw this call for schools and jumped in. Sylvia, over at her Langwitches blog, is hoping to connect her classroom with 80 other schools through the use of Skype, the online phone/video platform. She has put some great thought into the project and now she is searching for schools to participate. The Skype calls can be fairly short but it seems like a great way for schools to connect and for teachers to try out Skype. (If you need to get a sense of what Skype is, a good starting point is Sue Water’s post about skyping with other classrooms)

Sylvia has started up an Around the World With 80 Schools Google Map to visually show the locations of the school. I just added the mascot and picture of our school (Gail P., our intrepid kindergarten teacher, realized that the two of us had both signed up — our paths are now crossing left and right, in hallways and in virtual spaces).


As of a few days ago, these countries were represented:

  1. USA
  2. Canada
  3. Peru
  4. Argentina
  5. England
  6. Spain
  7. Estonia
  8. Israel
  9. Thailand
  10. Malaysia
  11. China
  12. Australia

I like, too, how Sylvia has laid out the rationale for the concept.


  • geography
  • cultural awareness
  • global awareness
  • global collaboration
  • technology integration
  • social studies
  • math
  • writing

National Educational Technology Standards (NETS•S)

2. Communication and Collaboration

Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others. Students:

a. interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.
b. communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats.
c. develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures.
d. contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.

There is still time for classrooms kindergarten through sixth grade to sign up. The easiest way is to use the Google Form that Sylvia has set up. Once you have done that, she will contact you with the Google Spreadsheet and the Google Map, and you are on your way.

Come on in and Skype and connect.

Peace (in connections),

Traveling in Imaginary Lands

My students recently finished up a project around expository writing in which they create travel brochures for imaginary lands. The criteria includes: a brief history of the place, three distinct descriptions that make the land so special and a map. I love the creativity that comes through in this project and the connection between art, writing and informational text is important.

See some of the work for yourself:

(if you are having trouble viewing this video, you most likely need to upgrade your Shockwave software. You can do that by going here.)

Peace (in other worlds as well as here),

A Gift of Giving from Students

A group of students surprised me and the rest of my teaching team the other day by presenting a holiday gift that beats all the candies, candles and other assorted things that seem to make their way to my desk this time of year.

This group of students banded together and went out to the main drag of the town where I teach (and where they live) and collected trash and garbage as a clean-up effort (and they adopted the slogan: Yes We Can, even making t-shirts with the slogan). They took pictures of their effort, and then they all wrote letters about why they were doing what they were doing, and pulled it all together into this beautiful scrapbook.

They presented the scrapbook to us and let us know that they had done this deed — on their own — as a holiday gift to us, their teachers. Isn’t that so cool? And so thoughtful? And so meaningful? I am so proud of them and so honored that they have done this project with us in their minds and hearts.

Peace (in the giving),

Mulling over the Heroic Journey Map Project

I’ve been sitting on this project for at least a week or so, thinking about how it all went. In a nutshell: after reading The Lightning Thief novel and then a graphic interpretation of The Odyssey, my sixth graders created their own heroic journey home, using Google Maps and Picasa photo sharing. The “monsters” they could encounter came from an entirely different project that we had just done, which was handy.  I had never done this project before and it came to me as a sort of inspiration one day.

So, how did it go?

Let first say that my students were really into this project, once they grasped it all. There were certainly a number of steps (write your journey, learn about Google Maps, learn how to embed pictures from Picasa into Google, etc.) But they were game, and the few who “got it” wandered around the room with me, helping the others. In fact, one day when I was away, I bravely let the sub give them access to the computers to work on the project, and they did a wonderful job on their own.

The difficulties mostly lay in the fact that my students do not have email, so I created an umbrella Gmail account that we all shared. On the positive side, this meant that I had access to all of their maps (there were 17 maps in all) at all times. The negative side is that sometimes, students would accidentally click on someone else’s maps (I will say “accidentally” here and give them the benefit of the doubt) and made changes, which then had to be fixed.

But some of the maps were just fantastic and I put the entire collection into a Google Sites that I set up to showcase the group of maps. See a couple of examples here:

We also talked about moving their project into Google Earth, so that they can see their projects on another scale, but we sort of ran out of time. (This took a lot longer than I had planned, as usual, and I am hoping they are accessing the project at home, too).

As a final reflection, I had them take an online survey about reading The Odyssey as a graphic novel and creating their maps. Here are their overall responses:

(see larger version)

As part of the reflection, I posed the question: why in the world did I assign this project to them?

Here is what they wrote:

  • To get us to use new software and also to have us learn how to make maps about the two the books
  • So we could have fun and we could explain our own sorta journey meeting with Greek gods or mythical creatures IT WAS SO MUCH FUN THANKS SO MUCH MR HODGSON YOUR THE B-E-S-T
  • Because you wanted to see how good we were with technology.
  • I think you had us do the project so we could learn to use new tech stuff, help us learn about the book more, and to have fun.
  • It goes along with the story
  • You had use us do that because it is like the Odyssey.
  • I think you wanted use to do that because we can make anything up.
  • To be more creative and be able to think of our own journeys that are like the books we just read. THANKS MR.HODGSON THIS PROJECT WAS AWESOME.
  • So we could become more familiar with the c.o.w.s, have fun,and be able to use the monster exchange project in a creative way.
  • Because either you just felt like it or this was like our version of Odysseus’s journey.
  • I think you gave us this project because you want us to become good writers and you wanted us to think about how would it be if we went on a journey.:-)
  • Because the Odyssey has a journey
  • I don’t know, but it was fun…….
  • I think you had us do this mapping project because it shows how to use technology and make our own journey.
  • I think you had us do the mapping project to almost relate to Odysseus and to look how a journey is spread across the world. I also think the mapping project helped us write our own adventure, which related to both the Odyssey and the Lightning Thief.
  • So we could have a chance to use technology.
  • I think you had us do this because so we would understand it better.

I also asked them what advice they would give to improve the project.

Here are their responses:

  • We could have our own accounts.
  • to make your own username and password
  • A way we could make the mapping project better is if you looked up pictures of mythical creatures like hellhounds and hundred handed ones so we could encounter those on our journey. other than that it was A-W-E-S-O-M-E!! <3
  • Make us not have to write so much
  • I think if we added some pictures of say Poseidon and other gods it would make it better.
  • Making us do the project on Google earth
  • More gods.
  • Nothing. It was awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • It’s fine. No changes needed, but you might want to scan the monsters, not take photos of them.
  • This project was too awesome that there was no possible way it could have been better!:-)
  • I don’t know. It was good
  • Making a separate account for everyone so that only the student and their teacher know the password to their account, so that no one else could change their map, as we experienced, and found it not to be a good thing.
  • We could have more pictures so we have our monsters then the monster exchange ones. 😀
  • I think that we could have taken a blank map and drawn our adventure. I would have rather had it be more artistic; I love technology, but sometimes art is better to explain a story. Google Maps was cool to look at, by I didn’t like the whole setup that much. I didn’t enjoy watching other people changing other people’s maps, it was extremely frustrating to watch this.
  • I think that the projects could be better if we did not have to copy and paste pictures on to Google Maps.
  • Battle a lot more monsters.

Yes, this project was very worthwhile and engaging, and not only did it use technology to connect them to reading and writing, it also allowed me to talk about the use of technology platforms they knew nothing about before.

Now, I need to grade them, and I am thinking: I wish I didn’t have to. I wish we could let the experience be the learning and not assign a number/letter to the experience. But we are not there yet, and they are expecting a grade.

Peace (in points on the world),

What I would say …

One of the superintendents in our system asked me, and some others, for some video for a presentation he is giving to elementary teachers on how and why to think about technology in the classroom. I sort of whipped this together this weekend and if he uses it, great. If not, that’s fine, too, but it allowed me to reflect on some of the projects I have been doing with my students this year.

Peace (in reflection),

Making Stop-Motion Movies, part 3

This is the third of a four part series of posts on how my  class went about planning, writing and producing short stop-motion movies on the theme of literary terms (see part one and part two). My idea here is to allow me some space to reflect and hopefully, nudge a few of you into moviemaking.

In my last post, I talked about the actual making of the movies. And now that they are done, what do you do with them? Well, many of my students now have their own flash drives (and our class has a few that we loan out), so getting copies of their productions is easy enough. It used to be a lot more difficult — burning DVDs, etc. Flash drives are wonderful.

Our movies are being made for a wider audience, however (including a few that will become part of The Longfellow Ten project). SO, we wanted to publish the movies to the web for a potential world-wide audience. This is a tricky decision — where to host the videos and where to publish them. I have tried all sorts of services over the years and to be honest, I find most of them lacking in one way or another. My own goals are for a site that hosts videos, with no links back to the site, no advertising and ease of use. Does that seem like too much to ask for? In this vein, I have worked with YouTube (no need to say a thing), Google Video (better but not great, and I don’t expect it to last as a separate entity from YouTube), Edublogs TV (it has potential but slow to upload, in my opinion), TeacherTube (unless it has been fixed, it had become incompatible with Edublogs), Blip (it’s fine), Flickr (you can upload and share short videos under the plus account) and more.

Luckily, my friend, George (of the Longfellow Ten), had been on the same path and he found Vimeo. It turns out that more than a year ago, I had checked it out too and forgotten all about it. Vimeo is like a typical service except you can really adapt the embedding option. This allows you to remove any and all links back to Vimeo itself. All the students will see is the video and the play/volume buttons. This is exactly what teachers need, I think.

Both George and I upgraded our accounts because we both know that we will be using it for larger video projects down the road, but the free version seems fine. It’s also nice because you can save a preset for embedding — you don’t have to revamp the embed code each time.

So, I now had a reliable and useful host for my videos. But I don’t want to direct my students to Vimeo to view the movies. I want to create our own space for publishing the video collection. (George is using for the Longfellow Ten project, which is nice because Vimeo is incredibly easy to embed in WordPress blogs).  I thought about using our classroom blog — The Electronic Pencil — but with 31 videos, that seemed like too much (particularly when Edublogs suggests you don’t publish more than one video per post). I thought about whipping up a quick webpage with html/dreamweaver. But then, I would have to host the page.

Finally, it dawned on me that a wiki might be the best option. Easy to use, a wiki also allows for multiple media files per page. So, I went to my wiki companion site for The Electronic Pencil (over at Wikispaces), and started to embed the movies. It worked like a charm, and it also allowed me to show my students a wiki, which we will be using later this year for our Crazy Dictionary Project (now four years running).

Last, I made a link to the various movies from our class blog site, had my kids view them one class period (so they could see what their classmates have been up to), and then I had them reflect about the movie project at our blog, thinking about what they liked about making the movies, what they didn’t like and what they would do differently if we started over again (maybe later this year).

In my last post (part 4), I am going to talk about how I am grading and assessing the movies.

Peace (in little movies),

Making Stopmotion Movies, part 2

This is the second post around making stopmotion movies with my sixth graders (see the first post) and I want to talk about how we actually did it. My hope is that one of your (dear readers) may want to replicate or build on the experience and so my path may help you along on your own movie-making journey.

First of all, I launched into this project because I received an email and a phone call from George Mayo, another middle school teacher who has done some wonderful collaborative work in the past (see, Darfur awareness project). He and I have communicated about claymation and I showed him a few ways to get started. Now, he runs a movie club and his kids began making stopmotion movies around literary terms as part of a secret collective called The Longfellow Ten. He wondered if I might want to have my students join in the fun. So, I scrapped one of my projects and moved into moviemaking. How could I not?

But I knew with four classes of students (about 75 kids), it would be hectic. And a bit crazy. And also a great time. (It helps that I have done claymation a number of times now, including summer camps. I would not have launched into something this big without those experiences under my belt).

I began by showing my students the short films that George’s students had already published and talked about what stopmotion is. Luckily, just about everyone has seen Wallace and Gromit, so there is a common thread to talk about (and, one day when I was out, the sub showed them the Behind the Scenes of the Making of The Curse of the WereRabbit movie — an incredible documentary of the work that goes on — it’s on the movie DVD).

My students then either got into small group, or worked independently (no group bigger than three — that’s my rule). I handed out slips of paper with literary terms (such as plot, setting, foreshadowing, etc) and their job was to build a movie that discussed, defined or demonstrated that term. This all begins with storyboarding out their story, conferencing with me, and having a clear plan of action before they even touch the computers.

Once they are ready to start shooting their videos, they either brought in their own toys from home or used the box of my own sons’ toys (shhhhh … they don’t know the box is missing). We use a freeware program called StopMotion Animator and inexpensive webcams for the initial frame-by-frame shooting. I like the software because it is pretty basic to use. It saves the video as an AVI file, which then later, the students bring into Microsoft MovieMaker for editing. (Although, you may need to use a Codec encoder in order to move the raw footage into moviemaker. If so, I use this one called Xvid)

Here is what I preach every single day, ad nauseum: patience. If they can be patient, and move their objects slowly, and capture a lot of footage, then their final movie will be of higher quality. I also tell them to film more than they need, since they can always edit out footage but adding new footage in is difficult (you have to reset the scene, etc).

In MovieMaker, they edit out their inadvertent hands, add titles and credits, and insert transitions between scenes. Then, we plug in microphones and they begin their narration. The syncing of voice to video can be difficult and it requires … more patience and also, some editing on the fly. I often show them how to use video effects to slow down footage or to capture a still image to insert into the video in places where more dialogue is needed.

We then gather up their project (usually only a minute or two long at most) and create a video (use the DV-AVI setting in Moviemaker for highest quality). For some groups, they are done. For others, however, they can make their own music soundtrack and we use a software program that I bought called Super Dooper Music Looper, which allows them to use loops to create songs. They love this software! (But George has also shown me a few sites that allow use of music, too: CCMixter and Freesound).

If they want to add music all the way under their movies, they need to re-import their video (with narration, titles, etc) and then layer the music, and then make the video a second time. Phew. There are a few steps to this process, aren’t there?

The result? A student-created movie from start to finish. In part 3 of this reflection, I will talk about how George and I are posting the videos online (hosting and publishing) and then, in part 4, I will talk about the task I now have of assessing their work — for this is a graded project, with parameters that I established at the very beginning of the process.

Peace (in sharing),