Archive for April, 2016

So, I’ve been thinking about the assessments I give my students. My students have been thinking about the assessments too, mostly in a could-we-not-do-that kind of way.

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Earlier in the month I announced it was time to write a book review of the novel we had just finished reading. Wild applause. Groans all around. These are second semester seniors. Please can we do something else. Can we do a presentation? Can we work in groups? I made no promises, but went home and thought about it. I thought about my goals for the assignment, our remaining time, and the final project, which is not changing. I also went to a talk by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott. Now, I do not currently watch a lot of movies because if my husband and I go out, I prefer to eat and talk, all without cooking or cleaning. We are now just in the no-babysitter-needed phase, but before that, if I was going to pay for a babysitter and sit in silence, the movie had to be awfully good. So, not a lot of movies got watched. Anyhow, a colleague asked if I wanted to go hear A. O. Scott at a local movie theater, and I said sure.

There I am listening to Mr. Scott, Tony it turns out, be interviewed. Super interesting. He talked about opinion writing and critique in general as “an exercise in explaining your thought process.” He spoke about the various and particular objectives and tactics one can employ in writing a review. One that stood out to me was the idea that a review might aim to introduce a work to an audience who would not guess the work would be of interest. In addition there was some fascinating discussion of which movies stand the test of time and make you want to watch them again. It was interesting to hear about movies that were audience and critical favorites that just faded away and those that were panned in their day, yet are now considered classics. It was totally energizing. I scribbled notes on whatever paper I could find in my purse. Then, I thought about which ideas I could use for my class.

The next day I combined part of an old idea from 5th grade with some A. O. Scott inspiration and some feedback from another colleague; I had a plan. (Once again, I would like to say how much I value talking to my colleagues and getting to bounce ideas off them. I do not know if they appreciate my bounciness, but I love it.) I decided that I wanted the students to consider evaluating the books we have read in comparison to each other across several categories. So, I made 3 groups; each group had someone who had read each book. Then I finalized my five categories: complex characters, quality writing, read again, effective message (we are reading YA literature so message is big), combination of narrative structure and story.

Here is my very quickly written description:

For this task, your group will determine the winner and runners-up (book or character) in each category. So you need a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place finisher. Your group should first review each book across each category. Not all group members will have read all the books, but each group should have someone who read each book. In order to make your choices, you will need to decide how you will define the categories. Then, apply that definition to the books to determine the winner and runners-up.

In class, a representative from your group will present your decision and explain the group’s reasoning. Quotations or page/chapter references are expected. Each group member must present at least one category. We will then evaluate the choices and the reasoning behind the choices. The group should also have a visual to support the decision. There may be prizes.

I set the groups working, “working”  maybe. Once again, I cannot claim that everyone was engaged, but as I went from group to group, there was solid conversation comparing the books, which was what I wanted to happen. This review and comparison work was certainly more significant work and better at addressing the essential questions of the course than a single book review. Plus, it served as a good lead up to the final writing assignment that will ask them to consider a number of titles. The day before the presentations someone asked what the prizes would be. I may have forgotten about that part, but luckily I had some left over prizes from bribing my personal kids to do things. I brought those in the next day. (I have written before about seniors being like 5th graders. This is true in prize preference too, since I said money was not an option.)

The presentations were totally solid. Sometimes it’s because the individual is good at winging it, but even the wingers had done the prep and were therefore able to be convincing and articulate. I certainly got a better sense of what they were thinking about and the type of considerations they were making than I would have from a book review or even a comparison paper. They do have to write and learn to write effectively, but that is not the only way to present a position. We spent an entire long block and then some to get through everything.

My Reflections:

There are definitely tweaks to be made to this. I evaluated on the spot and gave prizes to the entire team of the winning presenter for each category. This added a little tension which was not a bad thing for the group. However, I’d like the students to do more of the evaluating next time. Also, I’d include reflection the next class period to explain what separated good from very good. Mostly it came down to having and applying a specific definition for the category. Everyone had a definition and pretty good reasons why they chose the order they chose, but for some groups either the definition was very bland or they had a definition but then did not use it as their measure against which to determine the winners.

Also, I noticed that most of the winning books were the books that I taught rather than books they read in the literature circle groupsThe Phantom Tollbooth was the big winner with one student saying, “it’s basically the perfect book.” So, did I choose the best books to teach myself? Or, did they get a lot less out of the books they read more independently? I have a lot to think about with these two questions before I can answer them.

This is definitely an assessment strategy to keep polishing.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the makerspace this year. One of the tools I have been working on a lot recently is the laser cutter/engraver. I am a beginner with Adobe Illustrator so that has been a challenge.

I don’t know where I first heard about it, but I kept hearing about taking 3D printer files and laser cutting them. I also then saw these fun bots made by RoboMustache at a STEAM/Maker event with my personal kids. Seriously, how cute are these little things? I put these two ideas together and decided I needed to learn to design the shapes that I would need to create my own RoboMustache-inspired closed shape in TinkerCad, which I am better at, and then figure out how to cut them.

I googled how-to change 3D printer files to laser cutter and found this directions from Make Magazine. After looking at Methods 1 and 2 and decided on Method 2, because 123D-Make is free software. Win.

I know the directions were step by step, but still it’s a lot of translating files. The more translations, the more places to mistranslate. After sorting out a few issues with depth/height of the .stl files and scaling in 123D-Make,  I had a beta version. After a few more tweaks to the TinkerCad design, I had a solid box (small on one right below). I have to say that I felt pretty proud of myself getting it all figured out. It was not hard, but there was also no one around to go to for support. Plus, I have now explained it to others.

Here are my first boxes.

Photo on 3-10-16 at 2.53 PM

The one thing I haven’t figured out is how to get the DXF file from 123D-Make to come in to Illustrator the exact size they were created in TinkerCad. I’m not sure where I am missing a setting. With scale settings to set as the files move from each program to the next (.stl from TinkerCad–>123D-Make–>export as DXF–>open in Illustrator–>scale to size–>cut) I have a lot of combinations to try, and so far I have not dedicated myself to keeping track of attempts and results.


Kids and Reading

Posted: April 12, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

My personal kids reading in my school’s new Learning and Research Center. They found the graphic novel section and were all set.

So, I’ve been thinking about reading and kids, my school kids and my personal kids.

I have to say I love seeing kids read. LOVE IT. A LOT. Watching my son or daughter read, seeing them engrossed, it just melts my heart, every time. My kids are not new to reading. Even before they could read to themselves, they loved to have books read to them. (Learning to read was not easy for everyone at my house.) We still read out loud as a family, although not that often anymore. Each kid has favorite picture books and chapter books which stay in special piles. And yet there are times when reading just doesn’t happen for a while, and sometimes I get nervous about it. But, I try to keep some perspective about the bigger picture of their reading life. I know that books are part of our family and our house.

I love seeing my school kids read too. Unfortunately I don’t really get to watch them read much. Plus, it can get a little creepy, me just staring at kids who are not mine, really. They mostly do, or don’t do, the reading at home and we talk about it at school. I would like to make more time for reading in class and know more about my students’ reading selves and lives. The other day we had a chance to read quietly in class. One student said we’d been reading for a long time (it had been 15 minutes), but most of the students settled in just fine. There’s something about reading in community (a silent, individual and communal activity) that feels different than reading alone; it’s nice to have the group there sometimes.

I think a person’s reading life is a tidal, and that’s ok. If the tide is out at the moment, it’s not permanent. For me, the tide was out for a lot my high school and college years. I did not really read much that wasn’t assigned. Who had the time? I had school work, sports, activities, and some friends, and that was nothing compared to how busy some students are today. The tide came back in once I was out of school. I found big categories of books that I had never read before, but were hugely interesting to me (women pioneer memoirs–can’t get enough of them). I found authors I enjoyed and read through their works back to back to back.

And then the tide went out again. I had a kid and then another. Between the reading I needed to do to teach and the time I spent with my kids, my reading time was limited. A long New Yorker article was more my speed. But, I also read a lot of great picture books and found that there was an entire universe of books I had not thought about in years. There are the silly ones, but there are scores of beautiful, powerful, poignant, picture books out there, many of which now live in our house. These are books to read again and again.

When the tide came in again, I kept some of my previous interests for sure, but added others. I started reading a lot of food related titles, more essay collections, and added titles that my students were reading (which meant middle grade books for a long time). When I moved to the Upper School, I got to walk through the library all the time. I could check out all sorts of new fiction that came in and was prominently displayed. As I began teaching 9th grade English, I went on a Nigerian female author bender as I looked for a book to compliment Things Fall Apart. And, in an attempt to broaden my reading palette, I have added graphic novels to my reading diet, which I wrote about recently.

There are huge gaps in my reading history. Oh well. There are also huge gaps in my exercising history. These things happen. I guess my hope is that I can find a way to support my kids’, both school and personal, in their reading so that they do not necessarily have a big span of years when the tide is out on reading. But if they do, and I suspect know many of them will, I hope they remember that this break is not permanent. The books they used to like will still be there and new titles will be waiting to be discovered.

So, I’ve been thinking about another set of works for my taxonomy project. I thought about works that combine sewing or embroidery with prints or photographs. I have pinned more than a few images that I have seen around the interwebs. This work is fascinating to me. I thought I would give it a try.

I had some old linoleum prints from many years ago that were sitting around looking for a purpose. Plus, I may have stumbled upon a few good deals at a local yarn shop before it moved. So, I had the raw materials. However, I found it hard to come up with an embroidery plan; I didn’t really want all of the stitching to be very literal; I wanted some of the stitching to be abstract patterns or designs. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. My first two attempts worked pretty well. To me, these images lent themselves to the addition of some amount abstract pattern in terms of the stitching. In my thinking, they are both reasonably successful for early attempts.

Photo on 2-7-16 at 1.04 PM

Linoleum cut printed on vellum, embroidery thread

Photo on 2-7-16 at 1.05 PM #3

linoleum print on vellum with wool embroidery

The next two images with the stitching that sort of continues the image are just not that compelling to me. I don’t think it’s impossible to create something that relates more to the image and is successful, but I haven’t done it here.

Photo on 2-7-16 at 1.05 PM

linoleum print on paper with embroidery thread


Photo on 2-7-16 at 1.05 PM #2

linoleum print on paper with mohair stitching (socks)


I got ready to post about this and realized that I had set my taxonomy set size at 5 and I only had 4 images. However, I did not really have another unique linoleum print handy. I did have a few other not-so-great prints of the first image so I tried it again; I came up with a new version.

final embroidery print

After even further reflection, I think I might try to incorporate the image a little with the embroidery. I might try it again with the string maybe going behind the one leg so that she figure is in the webbing and interacting with it as opposed to just behind it and totally separate.

This is definitely a format that appeals to me and that I want to pursue. It was really helpful to remember that I hadn’t met my goal number of objects; it made me go back to something I had put down.

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about my senior English elective, YA Literature, and what is interesting and engaging for the students. I don’t mind working, but I do mind doing all the work and harassing students to do their part of the work.

In this unit we read The Phantom Tollbooth all together (and I did a really good job with it, IMHO), and then the students went to their literature circles reading either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The discussions that the groups managed to have independently were a very mixed bag. That combined with some serious senior-itis lead to a rather disappointing end to the week. When I planned out my assessments for the semester, I had imagined a comparison paper at this point. However, as the time got closer to assigning it, I got more and more convinced that a paper was not the thing that would actually produce good thinking and a solid product. Several students happened to have mentioned presentations over the course of the semester, and I had skipped a planned presentation earlier in the semester, so I decided to think about changing my assessment to some sort of presentation.

I still wanted to maintain the goal of having students think about this type of story. We compared general plots arcs of all three books, in addition to some other similar stories that they knew, and I wanted them to wrestle with both the similarities of the big events and the wild variety in the specifics. I also realized that with my podcasting experiment not working as well as I had hoped, I could use another creative assignment. So, I put all that together and came up with an assignment that required thinking (always good), involved presentation (which the students need to practice) and was creative.

The Remix/Remake/Create project was born. Here are the particulars, as I shared with my students:

You have now read The Phantom Tollbooth and either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. You may also be familiar with the Narnia series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz.

Think about the common characteristics of these adventure tales. You will plan and present a concept for a new book in this genre. Your concept must include information about the following:

Title: title and brief plot outline. No need for a summary of all the events, but a basic outline or flowchart of events is fine.

Cover or interior image: design either a cover or image for a chapter heading or major event

Protagonist: some description of this character and background; major character traits; ways these traits will be demonstrated not just stated.

Companion(s): who will travel with the protagonist; what do we know about this character; what traits does he/she bring that are valuable and challenging; is this character from the world of the character or the new fantasy world

Fantasy world: in what sort of place does the adventure take place; in what key ways is it both similar to and different from home; who is in charge; what sort of people/animals will our protagonist meet; how is this place connected to or known, or not, by others in the real world

Mission: what brings our protagonist to this new land; what adventures do you imagine once he/she arrives

Lessons to learn: what key lessons about life; about being an adult; about being a child; about living a meaningful, purposeful, true life will the character learn

Use of Language: what symbolism might you employ; consider the literal and nonliteral use of words; pay attention to the names of people and places.

Optional-Societal issues: will your book idea be addressing any particular societal concerns of the day?


Presentation (10 minutes) that clearly and enthusiastically shares your vision for this story concept. This should include the following:

    • outlines of ideas about the topics above
    • Several paragraphs of sample text from a few key points in your proposed book: first paragraph and two consecutive paragraphs from later in the story.
    • Note: Do NOT make a Powerpoint with all the information above and simply read from it. This will be beyond boring no matter how interesting your ideas are. You should be necessary to your presentation. You must present. What and how you present is up to you.
  • Brief written explanation of your inspirations for the decisions you have made. How have you taken ideas from the books you have read and reworked them, remixed them, to create something unique and new. This should include your target audience and reasoning behind your choice. Please put your concept in the context of other works. (~600 words)

In addition, I made this evaluation form that the students and I filled out after each presentation. I shared this with them in advance.

I explained the assignment on a Friday, and the presentations were the next Wednesday and Thursday. Classtime on both Monday and Tuesday was devoted to working on the project. I checked in and had good conversations with each group each day.

What I noticed right away was the energy level and engagement in the room. This was the 4-day week (with 4 Spirit dress days!) before Spring Break, not traditionally a time of great seriousness. People were talking about their ideas immediately. And because the students had ideas, my conversations with them could be so much more specific and individualized. I wasn’t giving vague encouragement, I was able to have particular discussions about the details of the project:

  • Was a storyline veering too far into PG-13/ R rating when I had set PG (maybe PG-13) as the upper limit?
  • Yes, I was familiar with Captain Underpants and could see the appeal of bathroom humor for a certain demographic, but were there lessons to be learned?
  • How much background knowledge of today’s rappers was necessary to understand this storyline? Would it be dated instantly?
  • Yes, I get the humor in the name of the king, will other characters’ names also have double meanings?
  • Has the group thought about whether the protagonist can return to this fantasy land?

I also wanted to be sure that the presentation days felt a little different and more serious, even if students were in odd attire (Spirit Week!). In a bold move, I invited the English department chairperson before I even introduced the project to my students. I also invited the Head of Upper School, who turned out to be busy. On the days of the presentation, I rearranged the room into 2 rows of tables for those listening and a table for the presenters at the front. I am a big believer in the importance of room resign to signal what is expected. Presenters could project their presentations and speak from the table or stand. Each day there were 3 presentations (10 minutes each).

While not all groups came up with books that would be snapped up by publishers, every group had a solid plan and outline. Several of the ideas were quite complex and well-fleshed out. The students thought about the intended audience and wanted to balance life lessons with a light touch. The assignment accomplished by three stated goals of requiring serious thought, including presentation skills, and stressing creativity. All that during the week before Spring Break. There’s room for improvement, but this assessment is a keeper.