Category Archives: Language Arts

The Edge of Tension

A few weeks ago, right around the time I started to really get to know my students, a shy girl–the brooding artistic type lingered after class, nervously asking me if I had read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I mentioned that I hadn’t, she insisted that I should “definitely check it out.” She assured me that I would love it.

Coincidently, a short time later my wife read the book, and I began to hear about it from different people everywhere. It has since been passed around the grade eight and several of my students have taken to blogging about it. My wife was surprised that so many grade eight “kids” are reading it, as some of the main themes are “inappropriate.”

Since I am still mired in Infinite Jest, I haven’t had time to read the novel, but I just returned from a movie date. Yup you guessed it: sex, drugs and rock and roll and suicide and sexual molestation, and mental illness– it is all there. I would have loved this book in grade eight, so why do I feel nervous talking about it with my students? I have a book that kids are exited about it. They are asking me to read it. Isn’t this what we want?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by helen☺

Realistically there is nothing new here, nothing that wasn’t covered in Catcher in the Rye, but for some reason, anything that veers ever so slightly from the sterile narratives of life as puppies and rainbows makes us nervous. We pretend that young adults and teenagers do not swear, they don’t think about sex and they don’t drink or do drugs.

We tell them not to do these things, without giving reasons why, only to act surprised when they experiment and get lost, but here is the thing–whether or not we admit that kids are thinking about these big ideas, they are! They want to talk to us about drugs and sex and alienation. We owe it to our students to meet them at the edge of tension and their interests or we will lose them to sanitized versions of life that bore us all. Kids gravitate toward the dark frayed edges of life and we owe them literature, culture and media that helps them navigate these edges, but how do we know when is too soon?

I hate to pin everything I do based on who I was in middle school, but it is my main point of reference. I know that I really could have used some adults to talk to about so many topics deemed inappropriate. I figured it out on my own, like most of us do, but why do we force kids to do that? We have been there, don’t we owe it to them to help?

Experience has taught me that we underestimate kids at nearly every turn, but what do you think? I know many grade 11 and 12 teachers who are not shackled by taboo themes in literature. But what about middle school? How do you decide which themes are age appropriate? How do you know how far to go down dark paths? Can we teach this novel? Should we? Talk to me people…


Giddy Enthusiasm

Sometimes things are happening in your class that keep you excited at all hours of the day. You see kids fully engaged during class time, and BIG AND- they are participating in an ongoing month long project outside of class as well. You watch as pieces of this project come trickling in at all ours of the night, on weekends, during other classes. You know you are not meddling and teaching too much; you can feel your scaffold strengthening as the students produce content that exceeds what you thought they were capable of.

I am engulfed in such a unit! It is wonderful. It has little to do with tech really, but the tech knowledge, skills and tools we have in place are making everything run smoothly. When people ask me how I use technology in my classroom, I am always a bit stumped. I use it the same way I do in my everyday life- to gather, create, share, capture life around me with a community of people.

In grades six, seven and ten we are in the middle of a viewing text unit. Grade six is watching How To Train Your Dragon, grade seven is watching E.T. and grade ten is watching The Wall. We began by discussing the idea of reading a film.  After deconstructing each respective film, we looked at various types of shots. Last week we moved onto looking at scenes as shots and students have begun to create their own 8-12 minute films.

It was at this point when I realized that we needed a quick detour into photography. I wanted the kids to realize the similarities between basic photography concepts and film making. After a quick lesson on how to take Great Shots, we began our Daily Shoot! This experience is what has me so excited. Over the weekend I was in Hong Kong for a conference, but I was thrilled to see at least 80% of my students participating in the exercise. They would go to this page, find the prompt, take their pic and post (with tags and titles) to their appropriate page.

Some highlights:

I am hoping that they will see that shots like these will make great openings to their video scenes. We have already discussed music and camera movement to heighten suspense and creating mood.

The Posterous gallery has been great as it teaches them how to sort and tag their pics, and it allows everyone to see what everyone else is doing.

Giddy is the best word to describe how I feel about this unit so far. Giddy and proud and excited and …..well seems like there are many words. But, what does the tech look like? How can I teach other teachers to do this? Not sure. We are using iMovie, Keynote, Posterous, cameras, blogs. We are filming, shootings, tagging, writing, drawing. It is hard to know where the tech starts or stops. It is hard to know if this is Art, English, or Film. We are simply caught up in a storm of creating. Unaware of where we will end up, we use whatever tools we need, we learn skills as they become necessary and hopefully we will have some pretty amazing films to share, but if not…if the films are only mediocre, we already know we have learned so much. And that is all that really counts.


Sunday Night Ramblings

Technology need not be some abstract construct. It need not be some terrifying futuristic robotic dystopia. Technology and the tools it enables: Internet, digital media, social networks can be and should be reflections. Not mere reflections of what we do, but who we are. The sooner we begin to understand that technology is a bridge that links minds-to-minds, thoughts-to-thoughts dreams-to-dreams the sooner we can stop being so afraid of it and begin to harness the power it affords us to be collectively human.

For so long humanity has demanded voices for us all, and not withstanding the digital divide, we now (at least those of us living in the first world)  all have that voice. Perhaps the understanding that we can now connect our fears and insecurities as well as our passions and talents to others is what is so frightening for people. Perhaps the realization that students can now voice their disinterest in what we do, is why so many people are fearful of jumping into the digital age.

I feel like a broken record, a blogger who simply writes the same posts over and over. I don’t know what more to say than what I feel to be true. I get this sense of excitement every time I open the ole WordPress editor, or Youtube upload page, or send a photo out to Instagram. Every time I participate in this upload culture, I feel lighter and more free than I did before I shared a piece of my brain, my soul with some vague fluctuating audience that may or may not be there.

There was no point to this post other than to say- it is not the quest for perfection in some finite permanent cypespace that should guide how we act online but rather the ephemeral, fleeting, sharing of random tidbits of who we are into the impermanent flux of of the Internet. If even one person connects to, relates to and/or understanding the essence of what I have said here, something magical has happened. Something organically and authentically human. The technology has become moot and the only thing left is you and me.




Sometimes it’s the simplest stories that have the most meaningful impact. I outlined the fledging collaborative project that has begun with some SLA students in Zach Chase’s class in Philadelphia in the letter I wrote them.  A look at the comments could prove useful for context of this post. As promised, I have taken the nuggets of poetry from their comments on my Flickr Set and set them to song.

Here you go SLA, my song to you. What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up!

Stones by intrepidflame

Here is another version by a teacher in Canada:

Stones by Bryanjack

Looks like NoiseProfessor in California has added his take to the mix. Take a listen here.

The nature of art in the twenty first century is that it never ends and doesn’t belong to any one artist. We are in this together…your move!


sometimes I wonder how many stones
there are in the world.
i found a light in your simple “Hello”
like the way grass dances in the breeze
Choosing between clashing vibrancies
she sings ohh how she sings

i can erase what i choose to forget
we fear the pen because it leaves a stain
like the lives of rocks and flower,
that tell the story of the world.

These are the years in which life is beautiful.
Each and every day a miracle.
A tiny person in a large world
filled with intrigue and wonder.

a warm orange flower rests against my skin
sweet serenity full and wide
I grab the spoon of your smile and dig
in these moments we forget ourselves
we breathe the ecstasy of golden silence
heaven has not been that far off after all
we just had to open our eyes
we just had to be open

These are the years in which life is beautiful.
Each and every day a miracle.
A tiny person in a large world
filled with intrigue and wonder.

I don’t watch television much anymore
but whenever I do I can feel it on my hands
the dusty residue
from carrying fistfuls of stones.

lonely I lay flat
Among dull gray stones
I want to go home

I want to go home

lonely I lay flat
Among dull gray stones
I want to go home


Mired In The Age

To the Students of Zachary Chase in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (Or any other class whose teacher came across this post and wants to participate.)

A few days ago I shared, on my blog, the fact that I had finished the first month of a yearlong project in which I would take a photo everyday for a year. Why did I feel the need to broadcast this information with what we affectionately call the World Wide Web? Not sure. I tend to share anything and everything that leaks from my life. The photos the songs, the tweets, the insights, the rubbish, the random thoughts trickle out and dribble into a vast abyss I am old ends somewhere with you. Well in this case your teacher Mr. Chase.

You see, Mr. Chase commented on my blog:

Do you mind if I use some of these as journal prompts?

To which I responded

Yes, please feel free to use them as prompts, would love to read what kids write. Maybe if they post on blogs, they can leave their links as comments on Flickr. Would love to follow the stories of these photos. Could be a fun project.

Hmmm….brain turning for new ideas.

Mr. Chase:

Alright. Just posted the journal assignment to moodle. I’m curious to see how this turns out.


Cool. Sounds great. Would be cool to have a small collection of short stories or poems based on these images. Would love the interaction.

Sounds simple enough right? No big whoop. We are, after all, mired in the age of the social web, where people are connecting and creating all over the world. My question, however,  is are they? Are you? Is this an everyday thing for you? Because while we all talk about collaboration, I am always floored when it happens to me. I was very moved by your words, your poems, your creativity and your engagement. I stayed up passed midnight watching your comments as they came pouring in. I had goosebumps and at times nearly cried. Take a look the comments for this blog post for a deeper look at why I find your action so important.

I just wanted to let you know that while, quickly typing a few words on some random Flickr set may not have been much more than a class assignment for you, your actions meant a lot to me. So what of it now? What happens next? Well that is up to you. I hope that this introduction can be a way that we continue to explore the power of art and words and connections. I was a born teacher and student, I would love to continue to teach and learn from you. Are you up for it?

I know teachers tend to throw out mixed messages, “Be open, share. Be careful, be scared.” I hope you use your judgment and the experiences which you have been taught by the more than capable teachers at SLA to move this project to the next level. This could be an authentic real world experience to create something beautiful with a larger group of people than those within our immediate community. (I invite other teachers to share this Flickr set and this post to see where it can go. Ask your class to leave poems, stories, haikus, comments anything. Maybe we can write a book, record an album…)

There are many things we can do with the images, the words, the connection. I hope that at least a few of you will share a few ideas in the comments below. I don’t know who will respond, but that is the beauty of sharing in whim, if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

After receiving your words, here is what I will do: I will scour your words mining for verses to a song, which I will sing and record. I will contact you soon about maybe singing a collaborative chorus. What else can we do with the words, the images? Who else is on board?