Category Archives: Teaching

In the Classroom: Evolving Technology

Franki at A Year of Reading has been thoughtfully considering new literacy tools in a number of posts this year.  Now she is focused on how Ipod Touches can be used in the classroom.  Now I have to say that due to many years in a fourth grade classroom exploring new tools I am a bit cautious about any particular thing.  I’ve had an IPod Touch myself for a year and I love it, but I have to admit I haven’t been interested in using it with my students.  Why?  Because I’m fortunate in having more than I have time for to use with my students.  But I’ll be following Franki’s journey with interest and perhaps she will convince me to feel differently.

I am very fortunate in being in a school that is very focused on using computers in every possible way.  We do our reports to parents online and they get send out as pdf files.  We communicate with email, blogs, moodles, etc.  Starting in 6th grade, every child gets a laptop.  In 4th grade we’ve had some sort of portable wordproccessor since the early 90s. (For how we got going on this see my article “Empowering Young Writers with Technology,” Educational Leadership, April 1994.)  This year we got netbooks for every fourth grader and they’ve been fantastic.  We are using ee pcs, but I think there are now others to use as well.  The kids do all their writing on them, internet work, email, photos, and more. They have been just wonderful!  (Especially after years other machines that were not nearly as easy to use.)  They aren’t, I don’t believe, that much more expensive than Ipod touches, yet do so much!

As for using Ipod Touches in the classroom I have the same reservations with them that I had earlier with Palms (there were educational outreaches for them too), and other smaller objects that don’t have keyboards and such.  You see, I’ve been  involved in classroom use of technology for a very long time.  (Starting when I worked at an AV  Centre in Sierra Leone in 1975.  I followed that with an MA in educational technology and another in computers and education. Came to my current school as a computer specialist and have been variously doing this stuff for several decades.)  What I’ve seen is it is tricky to consider what is going to be viable and workable in classrooms and what is not. What follows are some thoughts on various tools Franki and others are using or thinking about using.


I’ve been blogging with kids for three years now and it gets better every year.  Check out all my teaching with blog posts for more on this.  I’m a huge, huge, HUGE fan of classroom blogging! (Here’s a presentation wiki I did recently on this.)


I was skeptical of podcasts at first.  I paid attention to how others were using them in classrooms, but wasn’t sure what they really brought that was new and worth extra sidework (editing them and such).  A couple of years ago I started using them here and there in my classroom.   I do something called Literary Salon where kids do readings from books and we did a number of them as podcasts and I put them on the class blog.  My favorite of these were the ones we did with my (as I chose it as a member of the committee) Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! There had been questions about kid appeal and the podcasts were great at showing their enthusiasm.

Last year I came up with another way to do podcasts that worked even better this year.  Our theme in fourth grade is immigration and one way we consider it is the kids’ own “migration” from a small lower school to a big upper school.  At the end of the year I had a class of incoming 3rd graders interview my 4th graders about this. The questions were the same ones my students had used in the fall for an oral history of an immigrant and in the spring when they researched and wrote a work of historical fiction about the Pilgrims. The questions worked well for all three situations.  And the podcasts are terrific.  Some samples are here, here, and here.  This year I also had them do podcasts about their Pilgrim stories. I was so pleased with them — check out this one and this one for a taste.

I’m at a point where I can use podcasts as casually as I use chart paper.  The kids can do it too.  We taught them to do just about everything and I had to do nothing!  When that happens the technology works, in my opinion.  But whether you specifically need to do them with Ipod Touches, I don’t know.  With the ee pcs the kids are able to record, save, and then put the podcasts on their blogs.  I’m less clear how this would work with Ipod Touches.

Flip (and similar) Cameras

A couple of years ago a wonderful tech teacher I know visited my class and urged me to buy a bunch of flip cameras to use. But I was again skeptical.  I’d done a lot of movies with my class over the years, but they always involved a lot of editing on my part.  I didn’t see the point of non-edited films — they wouldn’t be good, I wouldn’t want to show them, and the kids could do just as well without them. So I thought.

This year I began using a flip camera in a few ways that got me very excited — I had someone film lessons for conference presentations and I realized that they were great resources for the kids too.  A few weeks ago my class did a debate that we filmed (Resolved: Is the MGM Wizard of Oz movie a good adaptation of the book?), but when it came to figuring out what to do with it I became overwhelmed. Because the raw footage was raw, the sound was bad and major editing is needed for me to use it.  I will indeed use it (for a presentation at NCTE in November), but it is going to take a lot of time to edit it into something worthwhile.  So I’m still skeptical.


I’ve had a Smartboard for a few years and I do love it — I use it as I did chartpaper (and the way many teachers use overheads) — I can write with the kids, in front of the kids, show them something on the web, annotate something, and so forth.  I love it — but I can’t say I use it in terms of touching the screen — there are some games and such, but they seem very doodady and gimicky to me.  At least for language arts and history — seems much more worthwhile for math.

This coming school year I’m planning on a new afterschool club — book bloggers.  Kids who were in my class in previous years will be able to blog again and those who weren’t will be given blogs of their own as well.  We plan on having these kids read ARCs, new books, and generally give kid points of view.  We may do some podcasts, movies, and other stuff — who knows!  So that along with the work I do in my classroom shall keep me thinking about how we can best use new technology tools comfortably in the classroom.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Teaching

Gail Carson Levine on Writing

The Writer’s Oath

I promise solemnly:

1. to write as often and as much as I can,

2. to respect my writing self, and

3. to nurture the writing of others.

I accept these responsibilities and shall honor them always.

The above is at the end of the first chapter of award-winning fantasy writer, Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic, a terrific book for kids who want to write fantasy stories.  My fourth graders write them every year as part of our Cinderella unit and I have found this book an excellent resource.  They love taking the above oath and they love repeating Gail’s first three rules:

1. The best way to write better is to write more.

2. The best way to write better is to write more.

3. The best way to write better is to write more.

Long long ago (before Harry Potter) I was a huge fan of fantasy literature, but could find nothing about teaching it so ended up writing a book about teaching it myself.  Now it is much more acceptable to use it in the classroom, but most books on teaching writing tend to focus more on other genres.  A longtime fan of Gail’s novels, I was delighted to see her book and discover how excellent it is.  I’ve known Gail ever since she won a Newbery Honor for Ella Enchanted (long story for another blog post) and so knew she had been teaching writing to a small group of kids for years. This book is the thoughtful outgrowth of those experiences along with many examples from her own experience writing fantasy.

And now this incredibly thoughtful writer has just started a blog! In her introductory post she writes, “For my blogging life, I intend to post once a week, and I will probably blog mostly about writing, but I don’t know that for sure.”

I look forward to seeing where she takes this new writing vehicle.


Filed under Teaching, Writing

In the Classroom: Kid Podcasts on Writing Historical Fiction

My fourth graders have spent the last few months considering historical fiction and preparing to write their own about the Pilgrims.  They’ve done a ton of research about these long ago immigrants (including an overnight trip to Plimoth Plantation) and are all diving into their first story drafts.  On Friday we taught them how to do podcasts and now you can listen to the ones they did in which they tell you about this project, their characters, their research and more.  I’m very proud of them!

Dorothy May Swan

Elizabeth Ann Warner

Dorothy May Rawlins

Samuel Hopkins

Mary Anna Dodge

Cooper Brewster

Dorothy-Ann Annie Cook

David Winslow

DW’s character on the journey

Elizabeth Brown


Filed under Historical Fiction, In the Classroom, Teaching

Teaching With Blogs: Capable Child Bloggers

This is the third year I’ve been doing blogs with my fourth graders and it has become such a natural part of the fabric of my classroom that I haven’t been blogging here about it at all.  However, a couple of weeks ago two  colleagues and I did a  session on blogging with elementary students at a technology conference and I thought some readers of this blog might be interested in it.  And so the powerpoint and wiki we put together for our presentation are here for your reading and viewing pleasure.   (They even broadcast our session and supposedly will be posting the video sometime in the future.  I’m very eager to see it myself!)

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In the Classroom: Reading Aloud

I do all sorts of read alouds, but the most important are the ones where I do an ongoing novel with the kids just listening and enjoying themselves. That is, they don’t have to talk (in fact often I won’t let them), answer my questions (or, worse, someone else’s say in a worksheet),  or feel an sort of obligation to do anything other than listen.  That is what I did with The Graveyard Book, The Underneath (still have to do a post about that), and now the forthcoming middle grade book by Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me.  A sixth grade teacher after my own heart about this is Sarah at the Reading Zone who has a terrific post up today about her reading aloud beliefs and practices.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Reading Aloud, Teaching

In the Classroom: If You Knew Time Like I Knew Time

The other day I started to read aloud a not-yet-published book set in 1979. The kids and I spoke about that being some time ago. One child said, “Oh yeah, that was when the Depression was.” Another’s face light up — ” You watch “Lost” don’t you? Right now they are in the 70s!”

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Filed under History, In the Classroom, Teaching

Picturing the Past


Can we teach history in a way that really engages students’ imaginations? How to make best use of outstanding historical books for young readers as well as primary sources? Join award-winning authors and fellow educators as we explore ways to help young people form their own memorable pictures of the past!

The above quote is from the brochure describing “Picturing the Past,” a superb conference at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston I had the great fortune to be part of this Tuesday.  Sam Rubin, Esther Kohn, and other staff members did a truly outstanding job designing, planning, and running this event.   I was honored to be in the company of children’s book creators Walter Dean Myers, Ellen Levine, Wendell Minor, and Martin W. Sandler and follow educators Myra Zarnowski, Rhonda Clevenson, Mary Kelleher, Jessie Gerson-Nieder and Trevor Wrankmore.

The day before the conference some of us were taken on a tour of the JFK Presidential Birthplace. I had been joking beforehand that every time I saw the words “presidential birthplace” I would think of a log cabin (a bit too much Lincoln centennial perhaps?), but now that I’ve been I will no more. This house was indeed where Kennedy was born, but the family moved when he was three. In 1967 the Kennedy family bought back the house and Rose Kennedy worked to restore it as she remembered it in 1917.  So it is a fascinating melange of her memories (as opposed to any sort of historical verisimilitude) her memorializing of her slain son, and something of what life was like in 1917 Boston.  Absolutely fascinating. That evening we enjoyed a lovely dinner at the Lineage Restaurant in Brookline (and I should say the butterscotch pudding is as good as all the reviews say it is).

The conference itself was, as I wrote above, superbly planned and managed.  I enjoyed the sessions I was able to attend, the museum itself which is completely engrossing, and our private tours of the Hemingway Collection and another room for the Kennedys.  The space, designed by I. M. Pei, is extraordinary, facing out into the harbor.  I thought it was pretty cool that I got to do my workshop in the Mural Room.  It has the mural that was originally surrounding the White House pool. Later it was turned into a press room.  But the mural is still there and I enjoyed having it around me as I spoke about the way I teach history.


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Filed under Children's Literature, History, Teaching

The Fortress of Solitude, Where Art Thou?

Now I’ve been happily connected on-line for almost two decades now. I love being able to write emails, posts, tweets, and status updates and love to read everyone else’s.  Yesterday, as usual, I was up early. Someone on facebook wondered about this and we had a friendly little thread of comments before moving off to our days. So there is  Virginia Heffernan in today’s NYTimes considering the art of the status update — the clever one versus the lame one.  Those elegant little tidbits we have to couch in 140 characters (that is the twitter limit) or less.  And it is all about connection, about social networking, about others.

What I think is less considered, especially among educators who are excited about these new technology tools, is the importance of solitude.  Being someone who needs a lot of it (a quirk of the introvert), I feel strongly that I need to train my students in the art of being alone even as I train them in the art of being together.  And so I appreciated Neil Swidey’s Boston Globe article, “The End of Alone.” While that title sounds a bit emphatic I think he has some good points in the piece, points that reinforce things I’ve been thinking about already.

For example, I constantly wonder what being a Peace Corps volunteer today is like. When I was in Sierra Leone in the md-70s our only contacts with home were with bi-weekly letters (and since they saved them, I’ve still got the ones I wrote my parents and grandmother).  No phone so I did not make a single phone call in two years.  Now I’m guessing calls are constant, email and twitter and facebook — all going on to keep you connected.

And because I think it is so important I do what I can to train my students to be alone.  Of course they can’t be literally alone in our overcrowded school, but I can insist on an intellectual solitude.  I do this by requiring them to spend whole periods writing or reading without any interaction with anyone else.  I don’t talk to them while this is happening and they aren’t allowed to talk to each other either. If they are writing, I might wander around the room peeking at what they are doing, but usually I don’t because I don’t want to distract them, I want them to live alone with their work. To tolerate the lack of instant feedback.  To consider the work, the book they are reading, the story they are writing,  on their own.

I suspect that I’d be a lonely girl if there was no online world for me.  Being able to connect intellectually with other likeminded folk has been fantastic for me. But I still need my solitude — time when I’m off line, ruminating, mulling things over. (Right now I’m lame and can’t run or walk which is driving me crazy — those are my favorite times of solitude and I hope to get them back soon. Soon.)  In education, especially those who are eager to use new technologies, it seems to be so much about social networking, about connecting.  Where, I sometimes wonder, is the purposeful disconnect?


Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching

Puck and Other Four-Letter Words

Yesterday I fell in love with Jonah Takalua, the Tongan bad boy who attends Summer Heights High.   Jonah is one of three remarkable characters created and played by Australian Chris Lilley in this mock-documentary now on HBO.  The other two characters are equally notable: queen bee Ja’Mie and the grotesque drama director, Mr. G.  Lilley is spot on in his rendering of these three high school archetypes; he reminds me most of all of Tracey Ullman, but the series itself is in the tradition of the best mock documentarians, say those of Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais.  I  haven’t seen much about this series here in the U. S., but it deserves more attention in my humble opinion.  And if you work in a middle or high school, spend time with middle and high school kids, write about them, for them, parent them, or otherwise are involved with them, this series may hit especially close to home.  I think it is brilliant.

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Filed under Teaching, YA

Vote for Me … Please?

I’m not great at this sort of thing, but here goes.  Gail Desler, a remarkable teacher I’ve known for a decade (we first met at the Library of Congress as part of the American Memory Fellows program) and with whom I  recently presented at NCTE has nominated me for an Edublog award.  Thank you so much, Gail! I’m truly honored!

And so here is my plea: I need for you, my lovely blog readers, to go vote for this blog (and thus me too).

Thanks so much!


Filed under Teaching