Wednesday, June 29, 2016

ISTE bits #3

Here's to inertia. I figure best to collect these keepers tonight from my last day at ISTE 2016, rather than risk coming to rest tomorrow and not getting going again for a while. That said, this list from my Wednesday wanderings around the Colorado Convention Center is stopping at nine.

  • Sketchnoting freshened up my attitude about note-taking. It falls under the umbrella of 'moments to learn, lifetime to master.' (Or about a year to master if you're Sylvia Duckworth!) Fortunately, she's shared resources to guide the rest of us. Appropriately, Kathy Schrock has also covered sketchnoting in her Guide to Everything.
  • Rob Furman crystallized an issue that's been nibbling, unspoken, at the edges of my brain. Think about how much media saturates our students' lives and, for most of them, how little of that carries information about good things to read. Bottom line: I need to book talk more. More importantly, I can create structures that encourage students to talk more about what they're reading and broadcast that talk to the widest possible audience.
  • Furman also shared two new-to-me resources: the self-explanatory Skype an author network and Countable for distilling what's going on in the federal government -- whether for our own education or for sparking student analysis, discussion, debate, and even action. (Is that Ruha Benjamin's voice I hear haunting me, asking, “How do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation?”)
  • Ruth Okoye and Karen Streeter provided a practical high-level view of coaching, rich with resources. Their picture painted eight essential coaching traits, and they said an effective coach must fire on at least six of these cylinders: communication chops, work ethic, leadership drive, entrepeneurial ethic, organization/planning, technical know-how, instruction ability, interpersonal skills.
  • Okoye and Streeter then dove into the nitty-gritty of matching coaching styles to learner types. Find the details (and other goodies) here on slides 10-22.
  • Noah Geisel and his conspirators in Aurora,CO are ambitious badgers, envisioning student credentialing on a vast scale and starting to roll it out. To learn more, start here and explore. I'm wondering to what degree badging at its best is an extension of standards-based grading practices at their best. Perhaps without the baggage of, you know, grades!
  • After listening to Michelle Cordy's closing keynote, I'm hugging the word 'stewardship' close. She offered it as a term that's increasingly replacing 'disruption' for her in education spheres.
  • Cordy's vignette about eye charts and how they embed a story in their design made my jaw subtly drop. Changing the format changes that story and, in the process, us. This article shares the 2010 research about psychology's pervasive influence. Makes me wonder: How can I design better? How can I be savvy about pitfalls in how tech designs function?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ISTE bits #2

The weekly Slice of Life blogging challenge coincides with my professional-learning binge at ISTE 2016. Let's cut two birds with one slice, so to speak. Here's a Top 10 list of my Tuesday take-aways:

  • Ruha Benjamin encouraged me to check out Chris Emdin's work. Better late than never, think I will.
  • Benjamin also asked, “How do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation?” I suspect I may keep trying to answer that question for the rest of my teaching life.
  • Michael Fricano introduced me to this GDoc add-on: Highlight Tool, which offers sorting functionality that's different from just re-formatting text color.
  • And this one, which works from GSheets as an intriguing way to bulk analyze student writing in a GDoc and email feedback: Essay Metrics.
  • And this one (also GSHeets-based): Add Reminders. My nascent idea is to suggest students try this for planting proactive planning reminders as a virtual timeline for genius-hour projects.
  • Jackie Patanio made me rethink visual prompts for writing. She shared this nugget: Have students take a selfie that makes a meaningful statement. To that, I'm thinking of asking them to write about what they did and why. (Perhaps record as audio to accompany their photo?)
  • Jason Ohler touted the power of teachers who are "door openers." He said, “No matter how open-minded you are, you’re still [as an adult] a gatekeeper." My refined aim in working with students: Open gates early and often!
  • Ohler also got me thinking more cogently about iterations of the WWW and how those trends might bend education. More on that here.
  • Pernille Ripp pointed me to the Yarn podcast for interviews with authors that reveal process insights to listen to and learn from with students.
  • Ripp also contributed another line to my forever-in-process job description: "figure out what each child needs and make sure they have it." Like identifying gates impeding their progress and what we might try next? Simple. Almost.

Monday, June 27, 2016

ISTE bits #1

Who doesn't like a Top 10 list? Here are favorite take-aways (in no particular order) from my Monday at ISTE 2016 .

  • Chris Lehman, Maggie Roberts, and Kristin Ziemke helped me see writing differently. When we write our stories, we construct our identity; we're not just dumping information. Micro-writing affords more chances for identity-driven writing, compared to traditional piece-driven full-length writing.
  • Stephen W. Anderson shared that live and archived webinars on numerous pedagogical topics live at
  • Tom Whitby and Stephen W. Anderson are involved in -- more webinars, but ones that have a two-way dynamic, rather than just one direction for information.
  • Flocabulary sows ear worms for learning advantage, though at a price.
  • Angela Maiers delivered her cri de coeur: "You are a genius, and the world needs your contribution." Then she asked, "Do you believe it? Do your students?" Those two questions stick with me, niggling at my brain.
  • Google drawing mouse shortcut from Katie Diebold: Ctrl-click an object, and you'll be able to drag a copy of the object elsewhere on the canvas.
  • The proliferation of comments and replies responding to online content provides unprecedented opportunities for students to examine the architecture of polite and impolite discourse. From there, Maggie Roberts asked, why not have writers emulate the former and revise the latter?
  • Anchor charts, according to Kristin Ziemke, serve as great ways to crystallize writing observations: What have we seen before? What do we know? What's new?
  • Giving feedback in a Google doc? Katie Diebold and Jill Heaton recommend, in Suggesting mode, populating Preferences with canned shortcuts to most frequent comments. Here's how.
  • Blogs belong in professional reading, Tom Whitby said. He pointed the audience to to browse ranked offerings for reading-list ideas.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On censorship & sensitive topics in middle-grade lit

I followed with interest the recent challenges stirred by author Kate Messner's new novel, The Seventh Wish, and I appreciated the dialogue she fostered via her blog. Wanting to form my own judgments, I read her book for myself. I followed it -- spontaneously -- with two other recent middle-grade titles: Pax by Sara Pennypacker and When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin. Now, I've got a lot on my mind, which I'll attempt to offload here by re-visiting each text. (No spoilers, but perhaps some reveals; read on at your own peril...)

The Seventh Wish, among a host of ingredients not the least of which is a magical fish, broaches the topic of heroin abuse. The passage below drops that bombshell on the 12-year-old narrator, Charlie Brennan. Midway through the story on pages 102-3, Charlie learns that her 18-year-old sister Abby has been using, a daunting iceberg's tip:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).
Arguments about the book (and Messner's presence as a visiting author sharing her book in schools) revolve around questions like: At what age should readers confront addiction as portrayed here fictionally? Should librarians invite the conversation by adding the book to their collections, or should they insulate readers from this ugliness until some point in the future? These questions cannot be answered definitively, though I see value in negotiating the terrain in more nuanced ways than age- or grade-level suggestions mustered by publishers and booksellers. Bloomsbury, which published The Seventh Wish, pegs it as middle grade; Amazon recommends it for grades 4-6; Barnes & Noble's site suggests ages 8-12. What feels more definitive is that heroin use is on the rise, especially among age groups that would encompass older siblings and other family of the presumed audience for The Seventh Wish. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can tell you more about that

Of course, heroin is not the only threatening iceberg out there. My next summer-reading book, Pax, brought me closer to the personal tolls of war. This exploration is simultaneously a subplot and integral to the tale of the bond between a young boy (Peter) and the pet fox (Pax) he must abandon when the story opens. Having later run away to reunite with Pax, Peter ends up in the care of Vola, a discharged soldier trying to cope with inescapable physical and emotional damage, as she starts to reveal to Peter here on pages 128-9:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

Like addiction is a fact of life for many, so too is military service. I don't mean to equate them; I'm looking at them as complicated issues that have far-reaching ramifications for society ranging from personal to communal to national to global. When should young readers explore them? When shouldn't they? While the overall veterans' population has shrunk in the last 30 years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of soldiers who live with service-connected disabilities has skyrocketed. That toll merits attention and response, in both fact and fiction.

My third recent read was When Friendship Followed Me Home. Like Pax, one focus here is on the connection between animal and boy. Seventh-grader Ben Coffin adopts a dog he eventually names Flip. Ben is a foster child who ends up switching homes for a reason that I won't share here. One of Ben's new guardians is a man named Leo, and the author drops clues that Leo is an alcoholic, as in this passage on page 120:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

As with the two prior titles, this issue is not the emphasis here. It's a complication, feeding the rising action, adding depth and intensity to the characters' conflicts. It flares unpredictably, shockingly, even violently. It also reflects life at a time when alcohol use remains prevalent as statistics from the National Institute of Health show.

Messner, Pennypacker, and Griffin do not hide from controversial topics. Nor do they flaunt them or dwell on them in ways that feel detrimental to young readers. Should families have the ultimate say in what their children do or don't read? Absolutely. At the same time, should schools and libraries rely on the professional judgment of their staff to provide the widest possible range of reading opportunities from which students and families can select? I believe so.

With books like these that can plausibly be picked up by students from mid-elementary through at least the end of middle school, how might we proceed as a community of readers? I'd argue: Keep talking with each other, for starters. Parents with children; parents with teachers or librarians; teachers or librarians with students; readers with authors. Personalize the conversations to make them matter because there are no blanket reading levels or labels of age-appropriateness or other gatekeepers that will absolve us from these messier interactions.

"To read or not to read?" will always be the question. As for the answer... Leo from When Friendship Followed Me Home tells his significant other, Jeanie, "It's all too much. Too many moving parts. I like it simple." Her reply: "Everybody does, Leo. It just isn't, okay?" (138)

Works cited

Griffin, Paul. When Friendship Followed Me Home. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Messner, Kate. The Seventh Wish. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Pennypacker, Sara. Pax. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembrance of comic past

Several of my formative reading experiences growing up were comic books, and I still dabble in the format nowadays. (I'm part way through Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.) Still toting that deep-seated experience, I welcomed an invitation from Pop Culture Classroom to attend the first day of Denver's fifth annual Comic Con last week. I learned about (and marveled at) cosplay; I reconnected with NaNoWriMo; I listened to comic-book luminary Jim Shooter; and I took away reading suggestions and teaching ideas for my classroom.

One of the latter came from Illinois teacher Eric Kallenborn, who demonstrated the simple, ingenious approach of using comics with empty word bubbles to inspire student-writers' words. The technique scaffolds experimentation with tone and voice when students try multiple drafts in different registers using the same visual frame.

The wordless panels with which we practiced brought back a vivid memory from a previous reading life. It's 1984 (back when Jim Shooter, coincidentally, was Marvel's editor in chief). I'm splayed on a friend's bedroom floor, and we're surrounded by a scatter of comic books. He flips me the latest G.I. Joe, issue #21. Titled "Silent Interlude," it broke with convention by telling the whole story via action and reaction, not a single word bubble. My eyes got wide as I read; I might've stopped breathing. This recollection sent me scrambling today to the Internet where I found this augmented version. My take-away: Comics have staying power and a place in my classroom as part of literacy's pantheon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flying sauces

As I've scribbled here before, I like to cook. My approach in the kitchen swings from improvisational and intuitive to cookbook digging and implementing, the latter fueling the former. During my current summer-reading binge, I scarfed down Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady. It's a delightfully narrative book. I also enjoyed how the author scatters insightful nuggets of why amid all the what and how. My biggest take-away, though: the alchemy of sauces.

Picture a humble bowl of fruit and plain yogurt (perhaps less humble when bulked up overnight into pudding with chia seeds, as O'Brady directs). Drizzle that with what she calls "Golden Honey Elixir" and, next thing you know, you'll be hijacking Shakespeare. Because: The sauce's the thing that makes the dish sing.

For the elixir, stir these ingredients together and let them hang out for at least 30 minutes: 3/4 cup honey, 3 tbs grated ginger, 2 tbs cider vinegar, zest of 1 lemon, 1 tbs + 1 tsp turmeric, 1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Let's keep the word play and recipe sharing going with a second UFO - Unexpectedly Flavorful Object! This sauce, O'Brady ribbons over fried chicken, which she evocatively calls "bee-stung." I went off label and glazed grilled pork chops with its sweet-spicy goodness.

For this condiment, combine 3 tbs butter with 3 tbs honey in a small pot over low heat. When that melts together, stir in 2 tbs Korean pepper paste (gochujang - trickier to procure, but if there's an Asian market in your town, you're set). Add to the mix 1 more tsp of heat (O'Brady touts a Korean pepper powder called gochugaru; I used cayenne, which she offered as an alternative) and 1/2 clove of garlic (O'Brady says grated; I minced and - gasp - used a whole clove, albeit a small one). Pour this syrupy concoction over the meat, and happiness ensues.

In these recipes and others, O'Brady reminded me of sauces' heady magic to transform what lies beneath. I see a metaphor to apply when wearing my other hat as teacher designing lessons, but that's a topic for a different blog entry. Mean time, if you're looking for kitchen inspiration, check out Seven Spoons -- itself a blog as well as a book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Serious summer-reading gratitude

One silver lining of being on the mend from knee surgery (there have been several, surprisingly) is a windfall of reading time. Among the titles I finished: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, a contemporary young adult novel set in Tennessee. One of the three leads is high-school senior Travis Bohannon who obsessively reads the Bloodfall series, a riff on Game of Thrones.

Later in the novel (mild spoiler alert!), Travis' friend Lydia arranges for him to meet the Bloodfall author, G.M. Pennington. The 'G' is for Gary; the rest is a pen name. Gary and Travis hit it right off, and I want to share a slice of their dialogue. Over ice cream, Gary asks:
"Are you a writer, Travis?"
"Oh no."
"Why not?"
"I mean... I can't write."
"Well, have you ever tried?"
"Then of course you can't! Writing is something you can learn only by doing. To become a writer, you need an imagination, which you clearly have. You need to read books, which you clearly do. And you need to write, which you don't yet do, but should." (221)
Zentner crafts a short, sharp sentence to show how Gary's advice transforms Travis: "Exuberant purpose filled him" (224). Those are words I've already felt proud to wear on my best days as a teacher. The same words now thrill me like Travis, freighted with imagination and books, eager to offload more in writing -- as I've begun to do these last five months thanks to Two Writing Teachers and...