Thursday, December 10, 2009

PhotoGrab High Frequency Word Game

I watched a video by Scott Kim, a master puzzle designer. At the end of the video, he discusses Shufflebrain, an online tool that combines social networking with puzzles. It allows you to make your own puzzles out of pictures that you have on Facebook or Flickr.

I will include Kim's TED talk below, but I want to show you the puzzle I created first. (I am very excited about this!!)

How cool is that? I made pictures of some of the 100 most frequently-used words using, I uploaded them to Flickr, and I created the puzzle using Shufflebrain. The entire process took about a half hour, and this was just the first time.

I think this game could have tons of value for students. Anything that compels them to recall part of letters and words is useful. I will definitely be refining my technique and posting more puzzles in the future.

Here is Kim's TED talk:

Game: Erase The Face (AKA 'Hangman')

All Ages
10-20 minutes
Best for individual students or small groups.

Hangman has been a go-to activity in any class I've led. I used it with middle schoolers and middle-aged housewives in Japan, it was invaluable in my one-on-one tutoring sessions with struggling sixth graders, and my current groups of seven and eight year olds can't get enough of it.

Come to think of it, I don't know anyone who isn't at least a little fond of Hangman. Heck, the US's longest-running game show is basically Hangman with a wheel.

I only have one problem: I think there might be something slightly wrong about drawing an execution scene step-by-step in front of groups of children. Read this guide to setting up the game from Wikipedia and tell me it doesn't creep you out a bit:

The exact nature of the diagram differs; some players draw the gallows before play and draw parts of the man's body (traditionally the head, then the torso, then the left arm, then the right arm, then the left leg, then the right leg). Some players begin with no diagram at all, and drawing the individual elements of the gallows as part of the game, effectively giving the guessing players more chances. The amount of detail on the man can also vary, affecting the number of chances. Many players include a face on the head, either all at once or one feature at a time.
In my classroom, I've replaced the body and gallows with an obnoxious smiley face. My kids literally beg me to play this game. I can put it on the agenda every and guarantee myself at least twenty minutes, of
happy, focused students. Here's how we play. (January '10 Update: Click Here for Erase the Face CrossWord Edition)

All you need is a writing utensil and surface. Since I'm working with small groups of students, I use my whiteboard. This could easily be done with paper and pencil, of course.

Draw a face on the board. Clumsy artists are welcome. Include as many facial features as you like; the more you include, the more guesses your students have.

I like to write the entire alphabet on the board. This way, the students have an easy letter bank to choose
from. I found that some students took forever to search their brains for a letter. This speeds up the process.

Technically, when the face is gone before the word has been solved, the game is over. But I never beat my students at this game; I will draw it out while they guess more letters. It's fun to watch them figure it out, and it gives them more practice.

When I erase part of the face, I ask my younger students to pretend like they are erasing theirs as well. Much giggling ensues.

I think this game has a lot going for it. It is a great way to reinforce vocabulary. I use it in conjunction with my "Word Wall," which has the 100 most frequently-used words Velcroed to it. My students have spent hours studying this board as a result. You could do this for new vocabulary from a textbook or a story just as easily.

Furthermore, I think that this game teaches some essential word-solving skills. The students really want to know what that word is, and as they try to figure it out they are compelled to imagine what sounds and letter would fit with the ones already guessed. It's kind of like sounding out words in reverse.

As the year has gone on, students have become increasingly capable of running this game by themselves. They take turns picking a word, drawing a face, and eliciting guesses from their classmates. I can pull students out for one-on-one time or just sit back and enjoy the show.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Readings: 20 Sounds, 5 Letters

From the fascinating (really)History of English by Jonathan Culpeper, an explanation of why English speakers have a particularly difficult phonemic system to wrestle with:

Why has the spelling system become less phonemic? Why is it now so complicated? History, as we shall see, can provide an explanation. Initially, English was written in a germanic alphabet - the Runic alphabet. Only a few Runic English texts survive, such as the inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, thought to date back to AD 700. Christian missionaries, arriving in Britain in 597 and spreading literacy, used forms of the 23-letter Roman alphabet: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z. And this is the first problem for English spelling: it adopted the Roman alphabet, in other words, the alphabet of another language -- Latin. Today, we have over 40 phonemes in English, but only 26 letters by which to represent those phonemes. In particular, note that we have about 20 vowel sounds in English, but only 5 vowel letters...

I have addressed the importance of conquering this phonemic dragon quite a few times, including games and activities to strengthen phonemic awareness.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Readings: A Dialect With an Army and a Navy

I finally purchased Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Pinker is by no means light reading; a professor at Harvard, he has the ability to write about almost any subject with a sophistication that puts me in way over my head. But in over my head is a place I love to be, and I've always enjoyed digging through Pinker's books.

At the beginning of The Language Instinct, Pinker is making his case that humans' ability to use language arises not out of experience but from the complex and intricate machinery of our brains. I was reminded of my urban public school students when he began to discuss the perception by some that the language of others is cruder or less complex:

"Actually, the people whose linguistic abilities are most badly underestimated are right here in our society. Linguists repeatedly run up against the myth that working-class people and the less educated members of the middle class speak a simpler or coarser language. This is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation. Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engineering excellence -- a technology that works so well that the user takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hidden behind the panels. Behind such "simple" sentences as Where did he go? and or [sic] The guy I met just killed himself, used automatically by any English speaker, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding.

"But though the language engine is invisible to the human user, the trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Trifling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groups, like isn't any versus ain't no, those books versus them books, and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as badges of "proper grammar." but they have no more to do with grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people in other regions refer to it as a darning needle, or that English speakers call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even a bit misleading to call standard English a "language" and these variations "dialects," as if there were some meaningful difference between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." (emphasis added)

Those of us who were privileged enough to acquire the style of speaking that happens to have the most value in our society often fall into the trap of interpreting differences in language as differences in intelligence. As anyone who has truly listened to a non-"standard" English speaker knows, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pinker continues with a discussion of the Black English Vernacular, or BEV. I won't quote the entire chapter for you, but if this is a subject that gets your motor running, you will definitely want to read The Language Instinct.

Bonus: You know I love Here's a link to Pinkers's TED talk dispelling the myth of the "blank slate."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Game: Construct - A - Word

All Ages
5-15 minutes
Best for individual students or small groups.

Construct-a-Word is meant to bolster phonemic awareness by way of Analogy Phonics, which the National Reading Panel defines as "teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words." It also strengthens PA by giving students repeated opportunities to manipulate onset and rime.

Post-It Notes, marker or pen, notebook

I stole this idea from the online game that I featured here last spring. I was working with a 5th Grader who needed some help with her basics, but we did not have Internet access, so I converted the game to Post-its. It turned out quite well; the Post-its are colorful, inexpensive, portable, and good for use on almost any surface, be it a table top or a whiteboard. If you do not have Post-its at hand, you could substitute index cards.

On individual Post-its, write each letter of the alphabet and the phonemes "ch," "bl,""sl,""dr,""cl,"and "sh." Using a different color of Post-it, if possible, write the endings "ig,""ot,""ed,""et,""in,""un,""op,""an," and "at." You can add or substitute any other endings you like. When finished, the complete set should look something like this:

Your student should be intrigued about the colorful array of letters in front of her. Invite her to select an ending from on the yellow Post-its. Tell her that her challenge is to use the other Post-its to make as many real words as she can. When she finds one, invite her to set the onset letter aside and write the word in a notebook.

When there are real words left on the board that the student does not see, I suggest providing clues and, eventually, pointing out the new word and encouraging the student to practice and writing it down.


This game bolsters phonemic awareness by compelling a student to practice joining sounds together to make new words. It will also introduce or solidify the concept that words have a beginning and an end, which is a bedrock concept in PA.

This is also a good game for basic vocabulary.

There will inevitably be errors made and a few words that the student does not know. Both the errors and the new words have as much or more value than the correct answers. Even erroneous answers compel our student to practice joining an onset and a rime, strengthening phonemic awareness.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Strategy: Book Tour

A few months ago, I wrote about a presentation I gave to a class full of teachers in the Twin Cities area. They were mostly Math and Science teachers who were hoping to learn how to include literacy strategies in their classrooms. I invited them to share what they learned with Literacy Log, and got one great response. I highly recommend a look at Emily Kjesbo-Johnson's literacy strategies site for Math teachers. Today, I'll talk about just one of the strategies she includes.

Book Tour
10-30 minutes.
Any age level.

I have seen variations of this strategy before, but Emily describes it very well here. She includes a downloadable version of the handout she used.

The Book Tour is meant to introduce students to a textbook or any other new reading material. According to Emily, "it can be a worksheet that groups work on together, or a tour of the book's features led by the teacher."

Be sure to compel your students to find the most important sections of the book. For a textbook, this would include the Table of Contents, Chapter Review section, the Index, and nowadays a website.

Think of this as part of an extended version of the KWL strategy. The Book Tour will help your students assess what they know and what they want to know about the subject matter covered in the book. It will also make the book much less intimidating.

Just before the school year began, Emily wrote about why she would start the year off with a Book Tour. "Our math textbooks are loaded with many helpful resources," she wrote, "but students are often so intimidated by the book that they never look past the practice problems."

Recently, I asked Emily how it went, and she was pleased with the results. "I think that as students went through it, they saw how the book wasn't just an intimidating giant book, but could be a valuable resource for their work during the year," she said.

The Alphabet Words game I featured yesterday could be used as a component of a Book Tour. It might be especially useful for introducing students to the Index or Glossary.

Photo: "Middle School Textbooks" by Flickr user "herzogbr." Thanks!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Game: Alphabet Words

10-15 minutes

I found "Alphabet Words" in Peggy Kaye's fantastic Games For Reading: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Read. It is incredibly simple to implement and I have been pleasantly surprised by how much my students enjoy it.

Simply write each letter of the alphabet on the board and tell your student(s) that the goal of this game is to think of a word for every letter. When you have them all, invite the students to repeat the words after you to review. That's it. The final product will look something like this:

This was the result of our Dictionary Alphabet Words game. As you can see, students come up with some strange words. Since this was a group of first and second graders, we were not striving for comprehension of words such as "helenistic." Simply compelling the students to look through the dictionary and spell new words is enough for me.

This game can be done in small groups or with an individual student. With a group, I assign each student a letter, which maintains a bit of order and gives them time to think. With five students, for example, the first will have A and the last will have E. Once we've filled in those blanks, I assign F through J.

It is easy to think of variations for this game. The first time I used it, we just thought of any old word for each letter. A week later, I included it in my "Introduction to Dictionaries" lesson. With a dictionary in hand, students had to find an interesting word for each letter. I was delighted by the way this game motivated them to dig into their dictionaries and by how excited they were by the strange words they found.

Kaye recommends the use of categories for this game. For example, you might set out to find an animal name or a food that begins with each letter. This might also be useful as a review for a particular subject or book for older kids. For example, challenging your students to think of alphabet words related to Charlotte's Web or American History might help them review the material and provide cues for recall later on.

This is a great way to build vocabulary. It also can help with phonemic awareness and strengthen skill with specific letter sounds. As I mentioned, it could also be a way to review material and build comprehension. Additionally, as mentioned, I have used it to introduce students to their dictionaries.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Readings: Johnson and Louis - Learning To Walk

I began reading Literacy Through Literature by Terry D. Johnson and Daphne R. Louis today and was immediately struck by the their gentle but persuasive argument for a whole language approach. I will certainly be sharing what I learn as I get deeper into this book. Here's a particularly lovely paragraph to whet your appetite. Even if you have different views about how literacy should be achieved, this is a great example of argument by analogy.

"Children will not benefit from being told about language. What they do need is help in getting started, gentle feedback on their attempts to do so, and kind tolerance of their errors. Learning to walk offers a useful analogy. Very young children clutch at furniture for support, tire easily and fall down a lot. When all else fails, they regress to crawling. The role of the expert walkers around them is instructive. They act as if there is no doubt the children will eventually learn. Praise is given for effort, and support is rushed forward to eliminate the consequences of error. No one sneers at the first fumbling attempts. Perfection is never expected. No one imagines that explaining to a child how one walks will help her or him do so. Success, given adequate physical equipment, is essentially universal. Few children are sent to remedial walking schools!"

Readings: The Importance of Phonemic Awareness

The concept of phonemic awareness has been discussed a few times on Literacy Log. The U of Oregon's Big Ideas in Beginning Reading page has a great rundown of what phonemic awareness is. Basically, phonemic awareness is the knowledge that words are made up of sounds and the ability to hear and manipulate those sounds.

This may seem pretty basic, but if students get off on the wrong foot with phonemic awareness, it can seriously hinder their journey toward literacy. In Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom, Pinnell & Fountas make a great argument for the importance of phonemic awareness:

Why is knowing about the sounds in words so important for literacy learning? In English and in many other languages, there is a close relationship between the sounds we speak and the way in which they are represented in written symbols. The relationship is not a perfect one; but in an alphabetic written system, it is critical for the users of language to recognize this relationship and use it to write and read. Children who realize that words are made up of sequences of sounds, called phonemes by linguists, can more easily relate these sounds to the sequences of letters and to letter groups. As children learn to read and write, understanding the sound-letter relationship is key, and this understanding begins in oral language experiences.

I am in the process of designing an after-school literacy program for young readers, so phonemic awareness is going to come up again and again. Having established its importance, I hope to find a ton of good lessons, activities, and games to bolster phonemic awareness. I'll keep you posted, and I welcome your contributions!

Cross Words: Erose


[i-rohs] adjective 1. uneven, as if gnawed away; 2. botany. having the margin irregularly incised, as if gnawed, as a leaf.

Etymology: L erosus, pp. of erodere. The dictionary tells me to see erode, which also comes from the Latin erodere. The prefix e- means "out" or "off" and rodere means "to gnaw." I'm surprised that the etymology for erode ends with "see RAT," but then I realize that "rodent" must be related as well! Sure enough, "rodent" comes from the Latin rodens, the prp. of rodere.

(Photo "Jagged, Yet Smooth" CC Flickr user Starfires. Thanks!)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Back to School! Who are the storytellers in your classroom?

The Zebra Storyteller
by Spencer Holst

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

"Hello there!" says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. "It certainly is a pleasant day, isn't it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn't the world a lovely place to live today?"

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why --- he's just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and though his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, "That's it! I'll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That'll make 'em laugh!"

Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, "Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn't it!"

The zebra storyteller wasn't fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he'd been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn't know why, but there was something about his looks he didn't like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Clippings: 7.29.09

The seemingly moribund newspaper industry is saving space by cutting puzzles.

Speaking of which, baseball writer Joe Posnanski has a great blog on the future of newspapers.

In the latest edition of The Reading Teacher, Lisa Zawilinski makes a case for student blogging in elementary classrooms.

UCLA's slang dictionary makes me feel like a "didiot." Perhaps I'm just getting old.

Get in the Game - Read!! is a great compendium of sports books for kids.

And Deborah Ruf argues that gifted children learn to read much differently than others.

(Photo by Flickr user Gord McKenna. Thanks!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cross Words: Striae


[strahy-ee] noun 1. slight or narrow furrows, ridges, stripes, or streaks, esp. many in parallel arrangement: striae of muscle fiber. (Plural form of stria. See page for unadulterated definition.)

Etymology: From classical Latin stria, meaning "furrow, channel, flute of column." The etymology seems to be a bit complicated, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourself.

Found in Fearsomely Frightful Crosswords from The New York Times. Puzzle #102. "Narrow grooves."

(Photo by Flickr user Roger Smith. Thanks, Roger!)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cross Words: Rime


[rahym] noun 1. Frost. "An opaque coating of tiny, white, granular ice particles, caused by the rapid freezing of supercooled water droplets on impact with an object." ( verb 1. to cover with rime.

Etymology: doesn't tell us much, but my trusty Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.) traces the word back to OE hrinan, meaning "to touch." Cool.

(Photo by Flickr user scottshephard, who is also my dad.)

New Feature: Cross Words

I have become addicted to crossword puzzles. I am supposed to be doing classwork, planning a wedding, and paying attention to my fiance, but the only thing that seems to interest me these days is putting letters in little boxes.

In order to justify this behavior, I thought I should highlight crossword puzzles' vocabulary-building power. So, I am starting a new series called Cross Words. These will be posts highlighting words that I learned while attempting to solve these infernal little puzzles. They will include links to and, two essential vocabulary-building websites.

Entry #1, jape, can be found below. Enjoy!

(Photo by Flickr user Jessie Whittle. Thanks, Jessie!)

Cross Words: Jape


[jeyp] verb 1. to joke; jest 2. to play tricks. 3. to make fun of, mock (now rare). noun 1. a joke or jest. ( page)

Etymology: Possibly from O.Fr japer, meaning "to howl."

(Photo By Flickr user patries71, CC)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kindersite: Kid-Friendly Educational Links

Nick Peachey recommended yesterday on his fantastic blog, so I thought I'd poke around a little bit. I did something similar with a month ago.

Kindersite's stated mission is twofold: first, the proprietors want to provide a portal to safe, educational content for children ages 2-8; second, they want to provide data to facilitate research on how children use such online content and how it affects their learning.

The first thing I find is a growing database of nursery rhymes in various languages. They have lyrics in the original language and in English. You can listen to some of them in mp3 form, and some of them have videos. I found myself a bit mesmerized by this Greek lullaby:

After a couple of dead ends, I find "Pictures as Words," a game from PBS's Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat page. This is a PBS series based on Amy Tan's childrens book of the same name. The game is very simple and would be a good way to introduce students to the idea that other alphabets are quite different (and perhaps more intuitive) than ours. Here's what it looks like:

Finally, I browse through Kindersite's treasure trove of story links. I end up having a story read to me about Mr. Happy and Mr. Stubborn, two characters created by Roger Hargreaves. This is a pretty exciting moment for me, as I had completely forgotten these books. Turns out there is now an animated Mr. Men series on Cartoon Network with a fun, kid-friendly website.

As you can see, my time on Kindersite led me to a lot of other places. Although I think their interface is a bit clunky, the proprietors of Kindersite are living up to the first part of their mission. Parents can feel completely secure turning their kids loose on this site. They will find a few time-wasters, to be sure, but they will be kid-friendly. A little more digging will turn up some serious educational gems. Happy hunting!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Reviews: "A Whole New Mind" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

Six months ago, I attended the TIES conference in Minneapolis with my dad. There were a number of things we were eager to see, but none more than the keynote address by Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind. We heard him argue, as he does in the book, that the kind of abilities that society values are beginning to change. He lists six aptitudes, or "senses," that will become essential as this change occurs: Design, Symphony, Empathy, Play, Meaning, and Story.

Story, of course, is most pertinent to the denizens of Literacy Log. I found Pink's discussion of the importance of story useful when I spoke to a literacy class at Hamline University in St. Paul recently, and I thought I would extend that discussion to this blog.

I used this quote from A Whole New Mind to summarize the societal shift Pink sees, and why it makes Story more important than ever:
What's unsurprising today would have seemed preposterous just fifteen years ago: an English-speaking thirteen-year-old in Zaire who's connected to the Internet can find the current temperature in Brussels or the closing price of IBM stock or the name of Winston Churchill's second finance minister as quickly and easily as the head librarian at Cambridge University. That's glorious. But it has enormous consequences for how we work and live. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact (p. 102).

I am reminded of my former life as a high school debater. Every August, before the season began, our team piled into two school vans and made the five-hour trip to the University of Minnesota Library to conduct research. We spent three days photocopying thousands of pages of books and magazines. We then took them back to our room at the school and spent days with scissors and glue sticks in hand, compiling briefs on various aspects of the research topic.

Today, this kind of effort seems absurd. What fifteen of us could accomplish with a ten-hour round trip and weeks of cutting is now the easy task of two or three students with laptop computers. This kind of shift has taken place across our entire economy, and especially in those activities that require the retrieval and use of information.

At Hamline, I was speaking to a room full of Math and Science teachers who were learning about teaching literacy in their classrooms. I used Pink's view of things to stress the importance of Story in Math and Science. These are not the only subjects that tend to place undue value on the memorization of facts. As the world changes, workers will not just have to retrieve information; they will have to convey it as well. Teachers in all disciplines must nurture the storytellers in their students.

In search of an example of the power of Story in Math and Science, I remembered a brilliant book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, of course, is a well-known teller of travel stories. Here, he strays from his home genre into the history of science.

I must note that I have spent my entire academic life avoiding science. I have thought of myself as a student of the humanities, greatful that others found the workings of the physical universe interesting enough to study. And so I was surprised to find myself absolutely enthralled by A Short History. Bryson's brings his considerable storytelling talent to bear on the people and events that shaped our understanding of the world, and the result is the most unexpected page-turner I have ever stumbled upon.

To demonstrate what Bryson accomplishes with this book, and to exemplify the shift from a knowledge-based economy to one that values Story, I turned to the book's discussion of the Richter Scale.

Students in Science classes encounter the Richter scale in this form:

(Technical Difficulties: Please click the picture to see it more clearly. And thanks to

The average student will attend to this chart only to the extent necessary for regurgitation on a quiz or test. And yet most instruction I recieved about the Richter Scale revolved around a chart such as this. Compare this knowledge-based tool to the story told by Bryson on page 211. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but I will share a bit with you and let you read the rest on your own.

The Richter scale has always been widely misunderstood by non-scientists, though perhaps a little less so now than in its early days when visitors to Richter's office often asked to see his celebrated scale, thinking it was some kind of machine. The scale is of course more an idea than an object, an arbitrary measure of Earth's tremblings based on surface measuremnts. It rises exponentially, so that a 7.3 quake is fifty times more powerful than a 6.3 earthquake and 2,500 times more powerful than a 5.3 earthquake.

Bryson spends the next few paragraphs telling stories about earthquakes of different levels of magnitude. He culminates with this one, on 212:

For pure, focused, devastation, however, probably the most intense earthquake in recorded history was one that struck - and essentially shook to pieces - Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day (November 1), 1755. Just before ten in the morning, the city was hit by a sudden sideways lurch now estimated at magnitude 9.0 and shaken ferociously for seven full minutes. The convulsive force was so great that the water rushed out of the city's harbor and returned in a wave fifty feet high, adding to the destruction. When at last the motion ceased, survivors enjoyed just three minutes of calm before a second shock came, only slightly less severe than the first. A third and final schock followed two hours later. At the end of it all, sixty thousand people were dead and virtually every building for miles reduced to rubble. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, for comparison, measured an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale and lasted less than thirty seconds.
For a student like me, this description would lead to a better conception of the Richter Scale than any amount of hours staring at that chart. That is why I love A Short History of Nearly Everything and would recommended to anyone who wants to take an alternate route to an understanding of science. In addition, I think that Mr. Bryson provides a powerful example of the importance of Story in disciplines such as Math and Science. Some students have a natural affinity for such subjects, but others find them intimidating or dull. The excerpt above could catalyze an interest in Seismology or an understanding of magnitude in a student who might have forgotten the facts once the test was completed.

When I mentioned Bryson's book, a few of the science teachers in the room nodded their heads in approval. Any teacher of science will find it a great resource, and I defy the casual reader to find it anything less than engrossing. Likewise, I believe that A Whole New Mind has a lot to tell us about how the world is changing and how we should change what we teach accordingly.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Clippings: 6.8.09

People are finding new uses for old card catalogs.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learned that our "etymology" comes from the Greek etymologia, which combines etymon ("true sense") with logos ("word").

Chicago Public Library unveiled an archive of a historic black newspaper.

Some school districts are ditching textbooks for online curricula of their own design.

NPR detects some patterns in this season's commencement speeches.

And one student is running an underground library of banned books from an empty locker.

(Thanks to Read Street for the first link! Warning: textbook link involves math. Picture from Flickr: CC user bitsandbobbins.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spreading The Word With Twitter

If you are wondering about the utility of Twitter, take a look at The Friday Project's Twitter feed here. The Friday Project is "the only publishing company that specialises (sic-Brits) in sourcing the brightest talent from the web and developing it into great books."

The started a Twitter account yesterday, offering a free book to their first ten followers. They had ten in less than an hour and now, fifteen hours later, they have 74.

What implications might this have for educators, you ask? Well, imagine a world where all of your students and their parents were hooked up to something like Twitter. This would be helpful in my native South Dakota where school cancellation is just a mid-April blizzard away. It makes phone trees look like smoke signals.

Or, let's say you are hooked up with hundreds of other teachers from all over the world. You need a good attention-getter for your second hour language class; first hour never really got on board with your lesson about how speakers of other languages make sounds we've never even thought of. Within minutes, you have found the perfect thing:

Pretty cool, eh? And The Friday Project has five more followers than it did when I started this post.

Oh, and you can follow Literacy Log on Twitter here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Strategy: Morning Message

Here's a little metacognition from Jack Woodson at Learn Me Good, who shares year-end "Five Ways To Improve My Class." The most interesting for our purposes here is #4:
Do the "Morning Message" more frequently
This was my first year (7 months, actually) of teaching language arts. So it took me a while to get my feet under me and find out what I was doing. OK, who am I kidding, I'm STILL trying to find out what I should be doing! But one of the things I would do about once a week or once every 2 weeks was the Morning Message. This was a short passage -- 2 or 3 sentences -- filled with grammatical and punctuational mistakes. The kids had to copy it down exactly as it appeared on the board and then make the necessary corrections. It was a fun exercise, it helped the kids recognize mistakes, and it showed them part of the editing process. Next year, maybe I'll up it to 2 or 3 times a week.
Sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We want our students to be able to recognize and correct their own mistakes. Peer editing and review teacher corrections are useful toward this end, but doing a bit of guided practice can't hurt.

(Photo from Flickr user, Nic's Events. "Editing a Paper- 19")

Web Resource: Using Twitter to Aid Disussion.

Below, you'll find a video that may confuse, intrigue, excite, or anger you. Most people are unimpressed by the idea of Twitter at first, but it is clear that people are coming around. Twitter's popularity has exploded. I'm sure it is blocked in many schools, but I am of the opinion that this technology, like instant messaging and YouTube, has something to offer us.

This post by Marshall Kirckpatrick at ReadWriteWeb goes into more detail about how this teacher uses Twitter. Enjoy!

Success Story: Marius "Mimi" Kothor

Via Mary Ann Zehr at Education Week, I came across the story of Marius "Mimi" Kothor, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from her native Togo at age 10 and is about to graduate with honors from high school. If you're looking for a pick-me-up, this should do the trick.

I like these comments from Zehr:
What's interesting to me about the story is how it took a very long time—until high school—for Kothor to find her educational stride. More than a year after her arrival, Ellingwood said she was shy and seemed depressed and some teachers suspected she had a learning disability. Over time, she was able to catch up with her peers and excelled as a student. She didn't have a learning disability.
What struck me was the influence of Lyne Ellingwood, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher assigned to Mimi. Ellingwood refused to believe that there was something wrong with Mimi that hindered her learning, as others asserted.
Ellingwood, meanwhile, took Mimi's education personally. She enrolled her in special weekend English clinics at Nazareth College, found a way to make payments and drove the little girl to her intensive lessons.
Mimi had two things that all struggling students need: a tireless advocate and plenty of time. You will enjoy the news story and Ms. Zehr's blog post, with a lengthy comment by Ellingwood herself.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Scripps National Spelling Bee: You Are Dumber Than a Fifth Grader

Kavya Shivshankar, a 13-year-old girl from Kansas, won the 2009 Scripps Spelling Bee last week, becoming the seventh Indian-American student to win the competition in the last ten years. CBS News won't let me embed their video of an interview with Ms. Shivshankar, but you can click here to watch it.

Balu Natarajan, the 1985 National Spelling Bee chamption, tells NPR that spelling competitors today seem far more "deliberate" and "scientific" than the competitors of his era. When asked why so many Americans of Indian descent seem to win the competition, he says it is mostly a matter of hard work, but adds:
"There certainly is some contribution from other entities. There is a foundation called the North South Foundation that serves the South Asian community and they have been holding spelling bees since 1993. It initially started as a means of raising funds for kids who needed education in India and that has turned into quite the training and breeding ground. There are a lot of kids who have done well in those contests who have then gone on to the national competition and some of them have gone on to win."
Let's hope the difficulty of Scripps Spelling Bee words can be taken as a sign of our society's overall literacy: Natarajan won in 1985 by spelling milieu; Shivshankar had to spell laodicean this year.

Bonus: My all-time favorite Scripps Spelling Bee Moment. A clutch performance if there ever was one!

(Picture: Spelling Bee Trophy by "litlnemo" on Flickr. CC This is not the Scripps trophy, but the Seattle Spelling Bee prize from 1979.)

Exploring Curriki

Anna at Literacy is Priceless is urging her readers to try out the Curriki Scavenger Hunt.
That's a little too structured for me, but I have been meaning for some time to check this site out, so I thought I'd poke around the site for a few minutes and share what I found.

About Curriki
Curriki derives its name from the words "curriculum" and "wiki," the latter being the software that is changing the way the internet is used by allowing more "readers" to become "writers." Wikipedia is perhaps the archetypal wiki site. Curriki is a non-profit corporation started by Sun Microsystems with a stated goal of supporting "the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them."

My Mission
My goal is to find an activity I can use during my next lesson with Alexi, a strikingly bright and entirely uninterested student that I work with two days a week. I've been working with him on recognizing main ideas in pieces of writing. He will talk to me without end about how little he cares for school; I figure he might as well be able to construct a proper argument for it. (Alexi is pseudonym).

It takes me less than five minutes to create a free account. I click the "Find" link on the left sidebar and choose the Advanced Search option, which allows you to specify the subject, grade level, language, etc. I type in "main idea" and check a few boxes and, within seconds, I am looking at this big unit on persuasive writing contributed by Andrea Chen.

On her profile page, I learn that Ms. Chen is a High School English teacher at the New Orleans Charter for Science and Math High School. This looks like a well-thought out unit plan. The massive block of text is a little daunting, though that isn't Ms. Chen's fault. Curriki ought to allow contributors to split these up into smaller segments.

But I have already found plenty of things I can use, such the "Vocabulary: Discussing the Art of Persuasion" lesson plan, which you can find by scrolling down about two screens into the unit. I can download the whole document and use it as I see fit. Thanks, Andrea!

Featured Resources
Curriki submissions can be rated and commented on by users, and some of the top rated materials are featured here. Just glancing at these, I find the following:
I get the feeling I could get delightfully lost looking through Curriki lesson plans and units. This is already a phenomenal resource, and I am very hopeful about what sites like this will do for education as they evolve. Not long ago, lesson plans were shared only in books and seminars and by word of mouth. Curriki allows teachers to conduct searches for resources, keep and modify them, discuss them with others, and add their own. Hallelujah!

I will keep you posted on my use of Curriki as I learn more. Please let me know if you have had success with Curriki or another site of its kind.

If you like this, check out Read Write Think, another great online lesson plan finder.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

TED Talks for Teachers

A person can find their way to and stay for hours and hours. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and it was started in 1984 as a conference that brought people in those fields together. In the years since, it has become a symposium for all kinds of great ideas. The site features hundreds of "talks," presentations by great thinkers and experts in all kinds of fields.

Take a look at three great examples, and let me know if you find other great ones (and you will).

Jay Walker on the world's English Mania
"Mathematics is the language of science, music is the language of emotion, and now English is becoming the language of problem solving."

David Merrill Demos Siftables
"One of the interesting things about this kind of application is that you don't have to give people instructions. All I have to say is, 'Make words' and they know exactly what to do."

Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity

"My contention is the creativity now in education is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The New York Times says the economic downturn is putting new stress on libraries.

Class sets of the comic book, "Barack the Barbarian: Quest for the Treasure of Stimuli #1" are available for pre-order.

Writing on the I.N.K. blog, children's writer David Elliott calls into question the line between fiction and nonfiction in this amusing memoir.

At the MacMillan Dictionary Blog, Gwyenth Fox says maybe we should just do away with apostrophes.

The English Business Letter Generator exemplifies the Internet's capacity for automation.

And David Warlick discusses The 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act.

(Picture: "Ann Arbor Library: Pittsfield Branch" by jhoweaa - CC.)

The Best So Far - 3 Months & 16 Days of Literacy Log

Welcome to Literacy Log! I took a little break for finals week and memorial day, but I'm ready to resume the literacy-related awesomeness. This week, I'm going to be adding new strategies, web resources, and perhaps some of my own teaching stories. I thought I'd start off with some of Literacy Log's Highlights so far.

Amazing Ads on Google: 5.26.09

I am a Google addict, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Like millions of others, I started using using Google's search engine years ago, converted my email to Gmail in recent years, and have since become a regular user of Google Documents, Google Calendar, and Google Maps. Oh, and Google's Blogger, which I use to write this blog.

Google makes it's living off of advertisements, but I try to ignore them. Ads on Google pages are nondescript and small. They are also targeted specifically at the user. I find this a bit disconcerting, but the immense utility and coolness of Google's software makes it well worth the discomfort.

I have also discovered that these ads can be strange, hilarious, and revealing. So, this is the beginning of an untitled (for now) series wherein I will post the best ads I see as I'm using Gmail. This is not necessarily literacy-related in any way, but I think these ads can tell us a lot about ourselves. Or perhaps they say something about me, to whom they are targeted. I kind of hope not...


Pick Up Girls at Work
5 Things to do in 10 Minutes. Make Her Want You Instantly.

What Is Your Self-Worth?

Learn to Connect With Your Inner Voice, Discover your Self-Worth?

Wake Up and Think
Take Your Life to The Next Level. Lessons from The American Monk.

Twitegy: Twitter Strategy
World's only Twitter-only Agency Social Media Marketing Done Right

And my personal favorite, which appeared beside an email from my fiance, Katie...
Katie Photos
Find Katie Couric Leg Photos at Great Prices.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Web Resource: Word Ahead Vocabulary Videos


"Vocabulary" is a term that can cause students to tune out immediately. My memories of vocabulary building in school involve worksheets, flashcards, and bold words with definitions at the end of the chapter. Most students fail to see the intrinsic value of new words, and building vocabulary becomes an exercise in failure for students and teachers alike.

Word Ahead Vocabulary Videos is a site that might be able to help. Opened to the public in January of 2009, the site features short videos with definitions, illustrations, and context for some six hundred words. You can use the widget above to see some examples of what the site offers.

Most of the videos seem to be aimed at high school-aged students, such as those trying to bone up for the SAT. (Click here for a complete word list.) Most videos are made by the folks at Word Ahead, though they also allow users to contribute by uploading their own videos.

Putting vocabulary words into videos will not make learning new words exciting for all students, but it might help, and it certainly beats worksheets. Word Ahead is a relatively new site, and thus should be expanding the ways teachers and students can interact with the videos. Stay tuned!

Words I Learned While Exploring Word Ahead:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Web Resource: Word Sift

Word Sift ( is a web resource designed to help students interact with texts. In the words of its creators, Kenji Hakuta and Greg Wientjes, it is "a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and play with language."

The folks at Word Sift have combined the magic of word clouds with search engines and an online thesaurus. A student can enter a piece of text and instantly see the most frequently used words in a word cloud. Then, they can use an interactive dictionary/thesaurus (from Visual Thesaurus) to explore the meaning of those words. They can also see pictures generated by Google's image search engine and find out where the words are located in their text.

For example, let's say we want our students to analyze President Obama's Inaugural Address. We paste the text into Word Sift and we see a word cloud like this:

As in most word clouds, the bigger the word, the more times it was used in the text. We can click on any word to explore it further. Let's try "people." Below the word cloud, we see Google image search results like this:

To the right, we see an interactive thesaurus/dictionary with connections to related concepts:

And finally, we see our word in the context of our original text. We can click on any of these sentences to see where they are located in the text.

This site could be useful to teachers in lots of ways. I will let you know how it works when I try it out. For the time being, Word Sift's demo page has some ideas. Let me know if you do too!