Thursday, November 29, 2012

Idioms, Not Idiots, for Promoting Speaking Skills

Students often view presenting in front of the whole class with the same disdain as facing a firing squad or are so self-conscience that they act like idiots. Additionally, finding precious time for whole class presentations can eat into high-paced curricular calendars.  We are still trying to get back on track from Hurricane Sandy, so this project was a quick way to get students to present and share without the stress of being in front of the class or take up class time. Students need to be able to present to audiences in person, but I do not agree with a "sink or swim" approach. This is an initial project for scaffolding the teaching of presentation skills.

Using OMM & BYOD for Recording Student Voices

As an introductory activity for John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, students worked in groups to record a quick conversation using idioms (not idiots) from the 1930's.

Open those ears and try to figure out what they are talking about in those hackney country accents (I apologize to those of you who live in the country).

Equipment Needed

  • One student in the group needed a device (smartphone or ipod) with a voice recorder. I recommend encouraging students to use a free MP3 voice recorder instead of a standard voice recorder that saves files as .m4a for easier integration into Edmodo. 
  • If students record in .m4a format, files can be converted using a free web program such as Fileminx (just be mindful of the pin-up ladies in the background if you direct students to the site). I did the conversions for the students.

The Process

Edmodo easily embeds MP3's- just click play
(on Edmodo, not on this picture), no downloading!
  1. In groups of no more than 4, students reviewed a list of idioms used in OMM and drafted a script on paper.
  2. Students used one smartphone/ipod per group to record about a 30 second conversation. In some cases, I even let a few groups use my Android phone to record.
  3. The recordings were emailed me to me because they would not upload directly to Edmodo from students' phones. We tried a few different techniques (go through Google Drive and Edmodo's library), but none seemed to work. I also wanted to minimize clogging the class' main page with too many posts. 
  4. I saved the files and converted as needed and then uploaded groups of them to Edmodo as a note. I didn't save the students' names to each project, just give each recording a different number.
  5. Students listen to the recordings and reply with comments. No grading for this assignment because the focus is on the process, but feedback was provided about how to improve performances.
Alternatively, for sharing audio files using YouTube instead of on Edmodo, I created title slides in PowerPoint which I saved as JPEG's, and used Windows Movie Maker to combine the visual and audio elements. It only took a few minutes of trial and error to create the video above.  

I'm not keen on uploading the audio files to Youtube without some sort of proper visual, but the visual needs to not be distracting or too complex because the emphasis is on the audio for this project. I did not want to create a video, but to share the student recordings on this blog, I needed to.  I'm figuring out the BYOD as I go, so if you, dear reader, have more efficient techniques, please share! 

Projecting Future Presentations

For the first time using this process, the collaboration and anonymity of the project allowed reluctant students to get into character and enjoy the project.  Students didn't have to feel like self-conscience idiots because no one other than their other group members could recognize their voices and listeners would be too focused on figuring out the idioms.  

When students record an oral presentation again (this went so well that I guarantee we will do this again!), they will be solo and identified. The next project will eventually lead into a group video using their devices and finally an individual video or screencast.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Guest Post: MJ Fletcher-- Opening the Door to Writing

GUEST POST:  Continuing the conversation on writing, author MJ Fletcher explains how he first began his adventures with the written word.

"What's that?" I asked my mother as I stared at the explosion of color and action on the cover.

"It's a comic book, do you want it?"

Two men locked in mortal combat, one wearing a massive red cape while the other, some type of alien, attacked him. How could I not want it? It screamed at me about other worlds and possibilities unimaginable by my young mind.

"Yes." I was enthralled and in that moment my love affair with reading began.

My mother never cared what I read; comic books, magazines, newspapers, books, as long as I was reading she was satisfied. I was a voracious reader of comic books and when I discovered the Lord Of The Rings I became an equally avid reader of prose.

I would go out and ride bikes with my friends, do little league or play war in the woods. But when I came home I was equally as happy with Spider-Man as I was with C. Auguste Dupin,  going on amazing adventures or solving mysteries, whichever, I loved every moment. I was hooked, a reader for life and I knew it. Going to the library was one of my favorite excursions or even better the book store where I could take books home and never have to return them. They were mine to read over and over again.

I find people always want children to read the right books, and I find that odd since there are no wrong books. If my mother had turned her nose up at that comic book I may never have become the voracious reader I am today. But there in lies one of my secrets, my mother was also a writer. She knew better than to try and force my tastes in books, instead she allowed me to sample and discover.

At school when we would have book reports, most of my class would allow the librarian or teacher to "suggest" a book for them. I, on the other hand, would create piles trying to determine which one I most wanted to read.

Then in fourth grade the next defining moment happened in Miss Smith's class. She gave us a simple assignment with one paragraph at the top of the page describing someone walking into dense fog. The instructions were to write the rest of the story. My classmates were all done rather quickly. I however filled the front and back of the page. I went home that night and started writing on my own and I haven't stopped since. I would give my short stories to my mother and she would correct them. I got used to seeing red ink all over my creations.

I was lucky enough to have a parent who encouraged not only my love of reading but also my penchant for writing. Writing is a solitary and lonely pursuit but one of great personal reward. It demands constant attention and reinvention from its pursuers and takes it measure in full. But to sit down and create a new world or character who can reach out across a page and not only connect but impact a young reader much in the same way I was affected the first time I saw that comic book... is my ultimate goal each and every time I pound away at my keyboard.

Not everyone is as lucky as I've been. Many students think of reading and writing as a chore rather than something to enjoy. Let them read magazines or graphic novels, give them a simple writing  assignment to stir their imaginations and most of all if you see a spark of creativity...  foster it and help it to grow.
Our experiences define us and help form who we become. My name is MJ Fletcher and I'm a writer thanks to those defining moments in my life.

I've written comic books, short stories, and novels. My love of the written word has never ebbed and I hope it never will. New stories and ideas are always popping into my head, begging to be told. My latest creation, The Doorknob Society Saga, will take you to the wildest places, with a crazy group of friends, with just the touch of a doorknob.  The first three books in the series, The Doorknob Society, The Impossible Engineers, and The Mapmakers Union are now available with book one, The Doorknob Society currently free for download on Kindle.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tagxedo: A Tuxedo for Word Clouds

Tagxedo is another nifty free tool for creating customized word clouds. Compared to Wordle, Tagxedo has more options and the ability to customize the shape of the word including uploading a picture of your own choice. Tagxedo will also use one's blog, tweets, website, and other sources for the content of the cloud.

Think of Tagxedo as a way for dressing up word clouds. While I like Wordle's simplicity for using a word cloud for analysis of a speech, poem, or short story, I prefer the use of Tagxedo for embedding symbolism in student-created projects and to guide students through the process of making artistic choices in an activity that is relevant to their own lives.

How to...

Students wrote "Where am I from" poems as modeled by poet George Ella Lyons and then created a word cloud  symbolic of their identity and the places that shaped their identity. The screencast below shows how to use Tagxedo and upload your own image (by the way, using Screencast-O-Matic, I created the screencast and uploaded it to Youtube in about 7 minutes total during 2nd period today).

Student Examples

Students posted their projects to their small groups in Edmodo for review. Students can then discuss artistic choices, as well as easily see commonalities among their classmates.  This quick project could also be used as an ice-breaker in the beginning of the year as a way for the students and teacher to get to know one another. 

We are using this activity as an introduction to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men-- a novella centered on the themes of belonging to and yearning for one's own place. OMM is also rich in symbolism ("Tell me about the rabbits, George!"), and this activity provides an introduction to the meaning of chosen symbols. 

Student often question an English teacher's analysis of literature: How do you KNOW John Steinbeck intended the rabbits to represent George and Lennie's dreams? One answer is found in asking the author and conducting literary research: go through John Steinbeck's published letters and journals or contact the folks at the Steinbeck Institute in Salinas, California (I have!). The other answer can be found in activities where students are authors and create. Students should be making the same kind of informed choices when crafting a creative piece. The three students pictured to the left used the star, infinity, and yin-yang shapes. While I, as the reader, can postulate that these shapes represent always reaching for balance in one's learning and life, the only way to know conclusively is to ask the artist. So ask the students, "why?"  You just might learn something new.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to (Not) Fill a Blank White Page

Working with Ms. MorrisMr. Lindgren-Streicher, and Mr. Thomasson back in August and similar in concept to Google's 20% time projects, the Blank White Page Project was conceived as a way to connect students and teachers through questioning and self-directed learning. While we are implementing this within the confines of the continental US, this project could be adapted to include classrooms around the globe.

The Process

  1. The class discusses types of questions and students make a list of questions they have always wondered about. The questions should be open-ended and require research and creativity to answer. 
  2. One of the teachers in the group creates a Google form for recording and a Google site for housing the questions. 
  3. Students go to the BWP site and record their questions.
  4. The teacher moves the questions entered by his/her students on the Google form to the various categories on the BWP site.
  5. Students return to the site and peruse the questions, choosing one to answer. 
  6. Students create "an answer" to the question, share it with the teacher, and the teacher posts it to the site. Answers can be in any form as long as they address the question.

Students can complete the BWP project individually or in groups comprised of members from their own school or elsewhere. Using Edmodo, Twitter (#BWP12), Skype or Google Hangouts, students can collaborate on creating and sharing answers. This process can be continually repeated throughout the year and additional teachers and classes can be added to the site. Additional participants could be found via networking on Twitter with other educators-- just pop into a #flipclass chat on Monday nights-- or via posting a request to one of the communities on Edmodo. I've met teachers online from all over the country, Canada, and Australia, many of whom are interested in connecting their classes.


Since this is project based learning, students could be scored with rubrics on the use of technology and creativity and effort in answering the chosen question. Self evaluation and reflection is also an important piece of the assessment process.  Students could also be additionally evaluated on their communication skills and ability to collaborate. The objective is for students to take ownership of their learning, so they should "own" the grade, not the teacher.


MY Implementation Issues

This has really been bothering me. I was so excited to begin this project (and I STILL AM excited to continue it), but I have met with some set-backs this year that have impeded the process and participation. I'm very frustrated by these set backs and not being able to better connect with the other teachers and classes.

  1. "Hey guys, wait for me!" Not all schools are on the same schedule. My collaborative colleagues began classes in August, and my school year did not begin until after Labor Day in September. I was the last one in the group to get my students started. Between mandatory diagnostic testing and getting the school year rolling, I wasn't able to get started on BWP until mid-September, a full month and a half behind the other participants. 
  2. "We can't get in the computer lab today."  While we have computer labs, media centers, and now a solid wi-fi infrastructure for BYOD in my district, we are not as far along with integrating technology on a daily basis in the classroom as compared to a 1:1 district. I am bound by scheduling constraints and access to the computers themselves. We have 6 computer and mobile labs for 2000+ students right now and students' home access is inconsistent.
  3. "What's a Google Site?"  I may be a MS Word wizard, but I haven't earned my wings yet flying through the cloud.  I didn't learn about Google Sites and how to create Google Forms until this summer and, other than using Microsoft programs, my students have also had limited exposure to technology in the classroom. This September was the first time many of my students have filled out a Google Form. My district is on the cusp of emerging from a ground-based school to one in the clouds as more teachers integrate web 2.0 tools in the classroom, and (after much delay) we are finally becoming a Google school and students will have their own Google Drive and access to collaborative apps. We are all learning as we go! 
  4. "We got walloped by a hurricane."  Seriously, walloped. I was all set three weeks ago to get students started on answering questions for BWP, and then we got hit by Hurricane Sandy and school was closed for two weeks to be an evacuation shelter for our regional community. Numerous teachers and students were and currently are displaced and the past week has been about the recovery efforts and supporting the community. I can't complain about a change in plans considering the circumstances. 

Thinking Ahead

For any collaborative project that extends beyond the bounds of the physical classroom, teachers need to consider the following logistics: 

  • Infrastructure: Does the school/classroom have the ability to connect to others? Does the school have available technology for completing the project and staying in contact?
  • Timing: How will the school calendars and schedules hinder communication and the process?  What are the timelines for the project?
  • Participants: Are all participants on the same page? Do all have the same expectations? Are all participants able to give the same level of commitment?  

If I've had issues on a national-scale, these could be compounded when applied to a global project. It is important to be proactive and prevent issues from occurring so that the project will be a success. I want the BWP to be a success because I know that it is a valuable self-directed project for my students, as well as myself. So, after much delay, we are ready to move ahead.

We all have so much to learn! 

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because your would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions." 
- Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Quick Customizing of QR Codes

The artist in me likes to look at the world in color, and QR codes by themselves are rather bland, but do a Google search for customizing QR codes and there will be a myriad of posts--most of which use technical jargon and various programs--to insert logos and other visual elements. The inserted logo or visual element will provide a visual cue to remember the purpose of the code. QR codes are for quick acquisition of information, so why not have a quick and simple method for customizing? Using the method below, I customized the QR codes below in less than 5 minutes each.

As I've stated before, while I'm technically adept at using computer tools, I really have no formal training or understanding of how/why various computer "stuff" works. Reusing my car analogy, I am an experienced driver, but don't ask me to explain the mechanics of why/how my car moves or how to fix it when it breaks.

Baker's Basic Method:

  1. Create the QR code and save it in your files. 
  2. Open the saved QR codes in MS Paint and use the various tools to add color or draw images on the code. While the entire code can be colored, only draw an image on a small portion of the middle to bottom right corner of the code and try not to cover the black lines. I used FILL to color in enclosed areas and paint brushes to draw on the code. As a general rule, try to alter as little as possible.
  3. Use a QR code scanner on a smartphone to test the code throughout the coloring process. If the scanner cannot read the code, then there has been too much alteration. Just undo a few steps and try again. A little trial and error never hurts!
  4. Save the customized QR code in your files. I just add "color" to the end of the original QR Code's file name so that I maintain the original code in case I want a bland copy.

Like an optical illusion poster, 
what can you see in a QR code?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My PLN: Eye See You...

Randomized Word Cloud created using an uploaded picture of my eye on Tagxedo.
I can not claim responsibility for placement and size of names! :-)  

Who do you see?

My eye, really.

People and collaborative places make up my Personal Learning Network. Facebook, Twitter, and Edmodo are central to my online community. Researching (and sometimes lurking) online in addition to participating in organized chats has resulted in many serendipitous connections and ideas for projects and lessons. My Google Reader is also loaded with blogs from other educators and friends (I'll add a list of links soon, but in the meantime, check out those listed to the right).

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.     
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Friday, November 16, 2012

QR Codes for Imagery Writing

This activity will appeal to students who are kinestetic and visual learners. Using BYOD, students will bring to class their personal device and use a QR code reader to access pictures on the web. Students will then incorporate sensory details to write a short creative response based on each picture.

The Process:

  1. The teacher creates QR codes of various pictures found on the web and saves the codes in his/her files. Using a QR Coder and a Google Image search, pictures can easily be found. The pictures should invoke descriptive writing. 
  2. Prior to class, the teacher prints out the QR codes and places them around the classroom.
  3. Students circulate around the room and use a QR code reader on their smartphone or tablet to access the pictures and either write their descriptions on paper or use the voice recorder on their device to record the student's description of the picture. Students who do not have their own device will team up with another student who has a device.
  4. When all pictures have been written about, students share their responses with their neighbor and the teacher asks for volunteers to share with the whole class.
  5. The teacher will then project each picture on the big screen in the front of the room and the teacher will discuss the pictures with the class. Students will then revise their responses to include details that could not been seen on the smaller device screens or those sparked by comments made by classmates. Students can share their responses with their neighbor and discuss writing options.
  6. Students choose one response from the set to revise and turn in for review by the teacher.


The initial writing responses will not be graded, but instead used for formative assessment. The final revised response can be scored using a rubric, but as I've stated in previous posts, I'm reluctant to put a score on students' writing. I'd rather read the response, annotate, conference with the student and offer constructive feedback for further improvement.

Take a look...

CSI: Salinas

Teaching students to infer and formulate arguments can easily be in context of a novel.  Using Steinbeck's Of Mice & Men, students can analyze the text to create an outline for a mock trial for either George or Lennie.  The final project can be completed on paper, using word processing skills and completed using a student's BYOD device.

A student's smartphone or tablet does not have to just be used for a special occasion in the classroom. I encourage my students to use their device daily for note taking, recording ideas, reflecting, and researching. For this assignment, students will use their device throughout the process and to create the final products.

Collecting Witness Statements

This project requires students to examine the story from various viewpoints and use textual evidence to support the perspective.  Students begin by collecting witness statements from ALL characters mentioned in the story:  The Boss, the various ranch hands and even the quickly mentioned Girl in the Red Dress. On paper, students would complete the chart and cite page numbers to reference statements. Students need to consider what each character knows and how their viewpoint is different from the reader's perspective.  Not all characters know all events.  After all witness statements have been collected, students would organize the characters into lists by who likes George or Lennie.

Collecting Physical Evidence

Students also need to examine the setting in various scenes to collect physical evidence that can be manipulated to support their case. The evidence can't be disregarded or changed, but it can be used to support viewpoints. This piece of the project is very important for students to formulate their arguments because there are certain things they cannot get around.  For example, (spoiler alert!) the cause of death for Lennie can't be changed. Students can't get around the location of the bullet wound and state that George was attacked by Lennie and shot him in a different spot. The self-defense angle for George will have to account for the ballistics evidence as shown in the story. Lennie never handles the luger so his finger prints cannot suddenly appear on the gun.

Additionally, students can manipulate the crime scene. For example, Curley's Wife dies in the barn, but the defense team for Lennie could state that she fell from the hayloft and died as a result of her injuries. The prosecution could refute this claim with the physical evidence of hay, fibers, puppy fur, etc found on Lennie's and Curley's Wife's clothing. We know from Crooks' statements that Curley's Wife is always in the barn, poking around where she shouldn't be and even threatens Crooks in Chapter 4. It is conceivable for the defense team that CW was in the barn, wearing her little red mules, and met with an accidental death. Although, the prosecution for Lennie's case should bring up the evidence of CW's smeared make up being on Lennie's hand (which readers know got there when he "reprimanded" her for yelling).

Select a Case & Position

After witness testimonies and evidence have been collected, students need to decide which case and position they want to argue.  There are four possibilities:

I tell the students that truth doesn't really exist; truth is just a bunch of people agreeing to see things the same way. The point of this project is in the process and the ability to support the case. I've watched enough CSI and Law & Order to know about circumstantial evidence and proving reasonable doubt, and I've done week-long mock trials in class where students are assigned roles, but there's always those few students who don't get into character and invalidate the activity. I've changed this over the years to just a persuasive-argumentative assignment to preserve the integrity and prevent the three-ring circus. The objective is to have the students examine all of the  evidence and witness statements prior to selecting a case, so that students will realize the best argument instead of picking a side and trying to support it and then start over when they realize they don't have enough evidence to support their position. 

Prosecuting George for the death of Lennie is easy. There's enough evidence to prove that he did it between the lack of signs of a struggle, the ballistics evidence, and motive. George constantly belittles Lennie (as Candy overheard) and there's witnesses who can attest that George has been manipulating Lennie. The Boss will even state that George has been stealing Lennie's pay. Sympathetic readers will shout, "But Lennie can't take care of himself! George has to!" But all that matters is PERCEPTION: to a jury George can seem manipulative, controlling, and heck, with his new best friends, Slim & Candy, what does he need Lennie for? 

Defending George is another viable option because he can be portrayed as a hero: the Girl in the Red Dress from the town of Weed will testify that George saved her life by beating that big lug over the head with a fence picket. Even the pugnacious Curley will state that is was George who pulled his hand from the clutches of Lennie's vice grip. But, there is that ballistics evidence to overcome: shooting someone in the back of the head usually isn't done in self-defense...

Defending Lennie is difficult. One could try the insanity plea, but throughout the novel, there are examples of Lennie knowing right from wrong, and there are are the numerous times where he threatens violence. Sympathetic readers will shout, "But Lennie only gets violent when the things he loves are threatened! He doesn't mean it!" But to a jury, the PERCEPTION is that Lennie is a menace to society who kills mice, puppies, and pretty women. Ouch.

We've all read enough school uniform essays to know that the easier side to choose is in support of uniforms, and school uniforms in this day and age is a dud topic. Students like reading OMM and that connection enhances this activity. They see George and Lennie as real people instead of some nebulous persuasive essay topic, which makes this activity so valuable. 

Another valuable lesson is in organization: Once students have made a selection, they organize their information into an outline. To facilitate the process, students fill in the blanks on the provided template to create a rough draft and then use the draft to type up a final copy.  

The Final Product

Students type up an outline for their case and is an individual grade assessing ability to follow directions, craft a legitimate argument and demonstrate understanding of outline format.  Students would peer edit each other's outlines using the provided checklist.

For the BYOD component and to make up for not doing an actual mock-trial, students would work in groups comprised of people with the same court case and position. Students would create a digital portfolio of crime scene photographs, videos of witness' testimonies, and/or scenes from the mock trial.  The final group portfolio would be posted on Edmodo and as part of their online participation grade, students would comment on each of the groups' portfolios. Students would complete self evaluation forms using a checklist and OSU rubric.

I don't have student examples created just yet because we start our OMM unit next week and this project is for the end of the unit, but I am recruiting former students to create some sample witness videos  They will be posted in the next few days.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beware of Teachers Speaking About Greeks

I am a fanatic about Homer's Odyssey and all things related to the epic poem. I am such a fanatic that I convinced my colleagues the past 4 years to let me give a 2-day lecture to the entire 9th grade on background information associated with the Trojan War.  I cram 10 years of war and mythology into two 45 minute periods (repeated 7 times for the various class periods).  It is an epic task that I love. I may be the sage on the stage, but I use engaging story-telling techniques so that students can practice auditory processing. For the visual learners, my lecture is supplemented with a PowerPoint presentation and complimentary handouts.

For those students who are absent and those who want to review the presentation at home or on devices in class, I created a video version of the PPT with enhanced notes that students can pause and rewind to gain understanding.  

After the 2-day lecture has concluded, students return to their respective classrooms and complete review activities of the material via review sheets on paper and on Edmodo and group Socrative Space Races. All of this culminates in a multiple choice test taken on Edmodo on the characters and plot of the Trojan War. Once students have demonstrated understanding of the material, study of the text of The Odyssey begins.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

If We Could Write 10,000 Words...

I've been thinking about writing and how to evolve my students into better writers, but to be honest, I don't really consider myself an accomplished writer. The irony should be slapping you, dear reader, in the face:  I am an English teacher, so shouldn't I be an accomplished writer? Other than the publishing I've done on the copier at school, what I've written here on this blog and starting to write for Teachercast, the answer, sadly, is no.

English teachers are the jacks of all trades in the academic world: we juggle reading, writing, analysis, standardized testing with a myriad of texts and techniques. While the Common Core Curriculum Standards are supposed to provide English teachers with a common core of skills and texts, English classes are not standardized because the scope is too broad.  Writing gets sandwiched in context with the literature taught in class, and while I've written before about the merits of peer editing, I still feel as if there isn't enough time to get the students to become better writers.

The same dilemma is mirrored in my own life. Here I am typing on my laptop perched on the counter next to the onions caramelizing on the stove and surrounded by my daughter's first grade homework marooned on the kitchen island. And there's dishes and lunch boxes scattered about waiting to be corralled. But here I am, striking while the iron is hot, typing up this post.  I'd like to think that I'm producing quality work, but I'm sure I will be editing this piece when I am less "distracted".

How can students become better writers when they too are distracted ... hold on I got to stir the onions...  by all the other "stuff" that is covered in class?

I came across a FaceBook post by David Blixt, an author I've been reading and following online.

I've been asked, due to how much I'm able to produce, if I sleep. Yeah. I need 7 hours, or I'm pretty useless. And my productivity has plummeted since I became a father (that's not a complaint). Back when I banged out The Master Of Verona, I had a lot of 10,000 word days. My best was a 22,000 word day. These days 5,000 is a good day. But I'm also a better writer, and better editor, than I was ten years ago. I'd rather have 5,000 good words than 20,000 ones that have to be pared, replaced, and eventually cut. (The second draft of MoV was 300,000 words. The one St. Martin's bought was 192,000.) I don't know if that makes me prolific. But it does keep me busy.

(Swap out quote above for screenshot of FB post after dinner is finished... Oh no! I forgot to start cooking the porkchops! Be back soon!)

10,000 words a day-- to write 10,000 glorious words a day. What a feat! Granted, this feat requires the desire to write. How long does it take to write 10,000 words? I'd like just 10 minutes of uninterrupted time (hold on, stirring onions again).

I wonder how many words my own students write in a day and what type of writers would they be with that quantity (and desire).  If anyone out there in cyberspace has read Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, there's that magic number appearing again: 10,000. Granted Gladwell points out that it is 10,000 HOURS that are needed to create mastery, but I wonder, could students master writing in 10,000 words total? (We don't have 10,000 hours!) And, here comes the obvious questions, when and how do we implement writing 10,000 words in and out of class? 10 x 1,000 word essays? 2 x 5,000 word research papers? 20 x 500 word activities?

I've never taught a dedicated writing course that was exclusive to writing, but I do remember being tortured by a Creative Non-fiction class during my undergrad years.  While that class was dedicated to writing, I know for a fact that it didn't make me a better writer. I did not connect well with the professor and my own insecurities about writing did not foster improvement by the end of the course.  I'm sure there are plenty of other students who have had similar experiences.

The other piece of this puzzle is the use of technology to foster writing. Students have access to writing in forms that were not available to me way back when: Facebook, Twitter, blogging, email, etc. Technology has enable us to return to an epistolary society. Granted, most of the writing is in short bursts, but I do know that Twitter's 140 character limit makes me rethink sentence structure and how to be concise. I've done some quick Do Now type writing assignments where students compose a tweet in the voice of a character, but writing on paper doesn't have the same affect as using the app-- so more Twitter-type assignments will have to wait until students are allowed to have access.

So, thinking further about writing and technology, how else can I evolve my own teaching of writing into something that connects to the students, makes them think, and is fun? While using plug and play strategies with paragraph and essay structure has worked to get students started, I want to evolve their writing into something that is beyond cookie cutter. Traditional teaching strategies are not enough anymore.

For story writing, I've stumbled upon Google's Story Builder which uses text, music, and video to build a creative story that has moved beyond the bounds of paragraph structure. I'm excited to explore this with my students. I'll be starting Canterbury Tales with my not-as-academic seniors after Thanksgiving and Google Story Builder could entice the students to tell their own creative traveling tales or adapt the tales told by Chaucer.  My freshmen students have excelled at using the netbooks in class, so I'm sure this tool will keep them enthralled when writing creative stories of their own or those that connect to Of Mice & Men, The Odyssey, and Romeo and Juliet.

I have this song in my head now while trying to conclude this post...


If we could write 10,000 words, could we write 10,000 more...?

(Off to finish dinner!)

PS-- I think my blog post turned out better than dinner. Multitasking is definitely not the answer for cooking or writing...


Part Deux: I Need a Contractor for Google Story Builder

Using Google's Story Builder 

So I started playing with Google's Story Builder today to create an example for this post, and while I like it for the potential use and the innovative way to show creative writing, I'm having an issue writing up my own example story. I feel like I'm back in that dreaded writing class again and having writer's block. Creative writing is just not my forte because it involves building and thinking forward. I think in a backwards direction by analyzing and deconstructing what is already present; I break things down instead of build them up. If I don't know where I want my story to go, how can I write the story?   I am such an analytic thinker and my creativity is a MacGyver type: I synthesize things in front of me and manipulate to create something new.

Here is an example from Google and the characters of 30 Rock, which is better than any example I tried to create, and frankly, captures the process I went through.

The Writing Process

I'm fascinated by the process authors use to write because I want to learn how they create. When I am writing a blog post or an essay, I start with my subject or theme and then the post evolves as I write. I go with the flow instead of planning everything out beforehand. I just write and wander on the page and the style evolves during the editing process.

I attempted humor in part one of the post and tried showing how my life mirrors writing in the English classroom (not a dedicated writing class). The humor evolved as I was writing: I didn't start the post thinking, "Gee, let me write a humorous piece." I actually intended to write a straight forward review on the Google Story Builder, but the post just went in a different direction.  I'd like to think I was funny, but only you the reader can tell me....  maybe I don't want to know....  (my attempt at humor again... ok, I know it isn't funny to have to point out the jokes and explain them....)

Teachers, writers, and authors, how do you write and what other tools have you found that students could use? Does your muse hit you on the head with divine inspiration while in the moment? Or do you go charging in with a map of what you will write and leave your strategic mark?


Part Three:  Update 11/15/12

I shared the above blog post with author David Blixt last night on Facebook and received this reply below.

This has made my week! 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

LBI & Hurricane Sandy- Links & Resources

No words can convey the sense of loss and devastation. This is the irony of being an English teacher: I cannot articulate my feelings over this disaster.  The island has shaped who I am today and who my children will be.

Rebuilding will be a long process that will be ongoing even after the media has turned their eyes to a new story and the fervor for donating has diminished. If you can help, please do so. If you cannot contribute now, please contribute in the future.

Moving Forward

Hope for Long Beach Island: video created by Jimmy Ward

Disaster Relief 

For information on how you can help support those in need from Hurricane Sandy, please click on the following links. I will only post links to reputable sites. Stafford Storm Relief Center on Bay Ave in Manahawkin and the King of Kings Church on Rt 9 in Barnegat has FREE  items for displaced families.

#NJED Disaster Relief

The American Red Cross

Jetty T-shirt:  100% donated to those in need

The Southern Ocean County Animal Shelter has a paypal account set up for donations in addition to information on how to donate dog/cat food and other items.

The Humane Society of the United States has a hotline for NJ residents who need help rescuing their pets.

Beach Haven Borough

Disaster Loan Application


From the Long Beach Township Police DepartmentOf importance FEMA’s strongest recommendation is to file a claim with your insurance company and also register a claim with FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 or online at FEMA strongly recommends if in doubt register your claim and generalities can be analyzed at a later point. FEMA guidance will be available to you in the immediate future.

Cleaning, Rebuilding and After the Storm Information

On FaceBook, follow Stafford Strong, Stafford Bucket Brigade, Waretown Bucket Brigade, and Tuckerton Bucket Brigade to find ways to be part of the clean up effort for the Long Beach Island and mainland areas. Networking on FaceBook and Twitter has been a vital way for communities to stay informed and take action. Throughout the storm and the power outages, mobile FaceBook and Twitter have been the only ways for people to gain information, so all the cross-posting and sharing has had a powerful influence. Below are additional links to information about the cleaning and rebuilding process and the opening of the island to residents.

Clean Up Begins in Downtown Beach Haven

Moving on from Sandy

LBI Reopens After Sandy

Elmo Explains Hurricane Sandy

The Sandpaper-- LBI's local newspaper

LBI Impact

For more information and images on how the Long Beach Island and surrounding mainland areas were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, please visit the links below.


The Sandpaper, local paper for LBI has excellent information on the area.

Hurricane Sandy Response Imagery- searchable aerial images, also zoom in to particular streets/houses

Google Crisis Map

Hurricane Sandy Damage on Flickr

Damage in Holgate

Before and After Images 

Search & Recovery Continue

Aerial Photos of LBI by Ryan Morrill (taken November 2, can see the new inlet south of Holgate)

Aerial Photos of LBI (click on links under pictures)

Footage of Driving on LBI

Beach Haven West 

WPVI Channel 6 ABC in Philadelphia has chopper footage organized by town name. Just go through their video page to find the town. Also there are videos of reports given from the affected areas.

CBS Philly also has video of reports from the area.