Rewind: Radiolab — Everything has a name

On the August 2009 episode of Radiolab, there’s the story of Susan Schaller and a 27-year-old man she worked with who was born deaf and did not realize that people interpreted the world through sound, let alone words. He assumed that everyone interpreted the world through visual cues, as he did. One day in Schaller’s sign language class, this man realized that everything had a name. And his world was changed.

This radio piece is put together so beautifully. It’s science that feels like story. Schaller asks, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols?” and Radiolab answers: “Somehow (a new) word changes the world in some fundamental way.” The word allows us to communicate with others, as well as with ourselves, and to understand objects, people and places in ever-increasingly complex ways. The hosts explain that the basic process of living means, “You’re going to get filled up with all these things which you have to express, but can’t, until you get those words. Then BOOM! The door opens.” Everything has a name!

Here is the podcast episode.

Later in the segment Radiolab also discusses the idea that Shakespeare behaved more like a chemist than a writer — smashing words together as though they were elements, rather than layering them as we typically do. Both of these segments work quite well in lessons introducing high school students to Shakespeare.

Am I just a word nerd, or is all this stuff really exciting?


Rewind: Publishing as Pedagogy

From December 2010 — I still have a few crayoned, laminated, hand-bound books that I wrote in elementary school. In  many ways, the drawing and writing I did in those books was no better than the work that made it onto my mom’s fridge, or the work that cluttered my bedroom and was thrown away. But the fact that they were published means that pieces of my childhood were preserved, and that I felt a sense of legitimacy in my work, even as I was still practicing D’Nealian handwriting. Even if no one read the books, the sense of accomplishment they brought was similar to what I feel today when publishing a well-read news article or blog post, or even when I see that I’ve been “retweeted” by a stranger on Twitter.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about the future of the publishing industry, self-publishing is no longer considered a last resort for serious writers, but is becoming an increasingly legit way to share your work. This shift in thinking opens the doors for teachers and students to use new classroom publishing platforms and tools, and to share their work with increasingly wide audiences. All publishing industry issues aside, when I think of the way technology impacts publishing from a teacher’s perspective, fireworks go off. The possibilities for quality work are endless.

Classroom publishing was the theme for this fall’s Wordstock for Teachers conference in Portland, and I was fortunate to assist with a workshop conducted by the Classroom Publishing team from Ooligan Press at Portland State University. The event’s keynote speaker was Erick Gordon, formerly of the Student Press Initiative at Columbia University. Below are notes from his motivating presentation:

  • Publication is no longer for elite students only, but also for students who are at risk.
  • Publication raises the bar for all students involved in a project.
  • Explore the idea of publishing as pedagogy. Allow it to expand your ideas of what kids can accomplish.
  • Get linked up with teachers who are involved in publishing with the Student Press Initiative’s Ning.
  • “This work can set you up to really know who kids are.”

If you’re interested in the Student Press Initiative, check out the organization’s website for classroom resources and inspiring project videos.

Stay tuned, because highlights from the Ooligan Press workshop on Classroom Publishing are in the fryer.

Rewind — Twilight: Actions speak louder than adverbs

This piece was originally posted on an earlier incarnation of this blog. Three years later, it’s still one of my most highly-trafficked posts.  Most recently, it got a mention in this excellent piece on teen dating and gender roles by Sean Hackett at The Good Men Project.

From July 2009

Unexpectedly, he was on his feet, bounding away, instantly out of sight, only to appear beneath the same tree as before, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed bitterly.

He reached up with one hand and, with a deafening crack, effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick branch from the trunk of the spruce.

… I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated facade. … His lovely eyes seemed to glow with rash excitement. Then, as the seconds passed, they dimmed. His expression slowly folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, his velvet voice unintentionally seductive.

… He sat sinuously, with deliberately unhurried movements, till our faces were on the same level, just a foot apart.

— Excerpted from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, pages, 264-265

While camping last week I was sucked in to the Twilight book series. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but after reading the first book I see what all the hoo-rah is about. I was absorbed in the story, reading it in less than three days. But I was also irritated with the author’s writing conventions, as many word nerds are.

I’ve never been a best-selling author, so rather than write a snarky piece about Stephenie Meyer’s writing, I would like to channel my snarkery into a lesson on adverbs, which run rampant in Twilight.

First of all, what’s an adverb? The clearest answer I’ve found is in a cartoon called “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” I’m not kidding!

Key points from the Lollys:

  • An adjective is a word that adds description to nouns — people, places and things. (Example: I am a slow runner, even when I wear expensive sneakers.)
  • An adverb is also a descriptive word, but it has the power to describe or change verbs (action words), adjectives and even other adverbs. (Example: Very unexpectedly, he was on his feet.)
  • As the Lollys told us, adverbs are words that help answer the questions How?, Where? and When? They also help show conditions, reasons, comparisons and contrasts.
  • Often, but not always, adverbs in English end in -ly. (Examples: Neatly, sloppily, indubitably)
  • Adverbs that don’t end in -ly include very, quite and rather.

So why does it matter that Twilight is full of adverbs? Adverbs are useful, but too many can weaken a piece of  writing. As one of my professors hammered in college, if you’re depending on adverbs for description, it means your verbs don’t cut the mustard. Or that you might be burying verbs that would be perfectly effective on their own. Since a verb is an action word and an adverb is an add-on, an verb is often more powerful than an adverb.

Choosing effective verbs instead of relying on adverbs often means you’ll have clearer, more succinct sentences. And in many ways, brevity really is the soul of wit. If you’re using ten words when five would do the job, you’re not impressing anyone — you’re making it harder for readers to see your point.

Here’s my rough attempt at revising the previous Twilight passage, this time with the adverbs toned down and the verbs emphasized:

He jumped to his feet and disappeared, then reappeared beneath the tree, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed.

He reached for a two-foot-thick branch on the spruce and there came a deafening crack as he ripped it from the trunk.

… I’d never seen him so free of his facade. … But then his expression folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured.

… With care, he inched toward me until we faced each other a foot apart.

OK, I have no idea if my revision is much better than the Twilight original. It’s still a teen vampire romance. But I will say this: The Twilight passage had 129 words. My version had 91 — about 30% less. In theory, this means the 498-page novel could be at least 150 pages shorter. But that’s another post altogether.

The point of the revision is to show how writing can change with an emphasis on verbs instead of adverbs. Why say that he “sat sinuously” when we already know he has rippling muscles? Why say he “effortlessly ripped” the branch from the tree? Clearly, a guy who can rip a branch from a tree is crazy-strong, no matter how much effort he puts into it.

I could go on and on about this, but I’ll end with a reminder: If you see adverbs pop up often in your writing, go back and identify each one, then see if you can replace it with a strong verb — a solid action word. In many ways, actions speak louder than adverbs.

Control your Facebook newsfeed, choose who sees each post

If you’re already on Facebook, it’s too late to keep Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies from knowing everything about you. But if you want some options for choosing which friends you want to hear from or share with most, I’ve found a workaround. In this post you’ll find steps for creating custom newsfeeds (so you only see updates from people you choose), and for creating custom audiences for your status updates, and Timeline posts (so you’re only sharing certain types of updates with certain groups).

While I really admire people who keep their Facebook lists pruned to a small group of close friends, or to only include people with whom they interact offline, I am too much of an extrovert to make that happen. I like operating in several wide social circles at once, both for fun and for getting support or ideas on projects.

But at the same time, it’s overwhelming to scroll through a newsfeed that includes hundreds of acquaintances. And it’s awkward sharing photos, links, or opinions with all of those people at once. In real life, people usually operate differently when they’re in different social groups. So, to me, it makes sense to do the same online. If you’re familiar with +Google, these instructions basically allow you to create +G Circles on Facebook. (Is there anyone else out there who loved +G, but couldn’t find a good use for it?) This approach is especially useful for:

  • Sharing or reading family-only updates
  • Sharing updates with certain groups of friends (without worrying about the response of your grandparents, coworkers, etc.)
  • Sharing with or reading about people in different geographic areas (my friends in California don’t need to hear about events happening in Oregon, do they?)
  • Sharing or reading personal updates between your close friends, but not your acquaintances or professional contacts
  • Updating people who are attending one large event
  • Promoting your business, blog or projects
  • Sharing links or opinions related to politics and religion (If you want to avoid a firestorm, just preach to the choir and share these with a list of people who you know agree with you)

Keep in mind that I am not an expert of any kind when it comes to coding or back-end IT stuff. I can’t guarantee that Facebook won’t suddenly revamp its settings and render these instructions useless. But I’ve been using this method since 2010 and it has worked well for me.

Create a Facebook Friend List

  1. From any FB page on the lefthand sidebar, hover your mouse over the gray title that says “FRIENDS.” Next to it, the word “MORE” will appear.
  2. Click on “MORE” This will take you to a page where you’ll see all the lists that you or FB have created for your account.
  3. If you like one of the lists that FB created for you, you can hover over the little pencil icon on its left and click “Favorite.”
  4. If you think their “Close Friends” and “Acquaintances” lists aren’t accurate, you can hide them. Hover over the little pencil icon on its left and click “Archive.”
  5. To make your own list, click on the “+Create List” button at the top. It should walk you through the steps from there.

To see a newsfeed that only has updates from a certain Friend List: Click on that list name on the lefthand sidebar. (If it’s not showing up, click “MORE” again, then click on the list you want.) This will show updates from that list only, and they’ll be in chronological order.

To share one of your status updates or Timeline posts only with specific Friend Lists:

  1. Click on the bottom-right “Friends” button in the status update box.
  2. To share with only one list, click “See all Lists,” then click the list you want.

To share a status update or Timeline post with multiple (but not all) Friend Lists:

  1. Click on the bottom-right “Friends” button in the status update box.
  2. Click “Custom.”
  3. Under “Make this visible to…” click the dropdown box, then “Specific people or lists.”
  4. A new box will appear under the dropdown box. Type in the list names you want to share with. Hit Save.

If you have any tips to add to these lists (especially tips for making the process more streamlined), please share them in the comments.

Here’s to sharing! (And choosing how we share.)

Rewind: Going electronic with a student newspaper

From March 2011 — Several weeks ago, the newspaper staff at my student teaching placement site learned that they would have no allotted budget for the coming school year. To save money and to propel their newspaper into a new era of publishing, our team got innovative and put the newspaper on The results (as seen here) have been fantastic:

  • The publication has the look and feel of an e-magazine.
  • Our team saved money by printing only four pages (which were distributed throughout the school) and including teasers on those pages to lead readers to an additional six pages online. (I should note that this idea came from our student team, and was a key part of moving our team in this new direction.)
  • Within a couple of days, the online publication had about 200 views. There were about 400 views within a week, equivalent to a quarter of the student body.
  • The online publication is in color, allowing for more emphasis on photography and new options for our page designers.
  • The account that allowed us to do all this was free.
  • The viewer statistics we receive from will be used in advertising sales packets. And the opportunity to publish additional pages online means there will be more room for ads.
  • We are already planning online extra issues in between our major scheduled publications. This allows us to memorialize a student who recently passed away, to provide sports updates, and to be available for other breaking news reports.

We have our current issue up online, along with two archived issues in black and white. You can see them all right here. We plan to use at least for the rest of the school year, hopefully in conjunction with a news website that a student is developing.

I know this blog is getting a lot of traffic from readers who are interested in classroom publishing and student journalism. Are any of you using Which online resources have helped you and your students save money or reach new audiences?

Rewind: My student featured on

From April 2011

I love memoirs. And I love brevity. So when Smith Magazine rolled out the Six-Word Memoir project, I knew it would be part of my life in some way.

Oddly, I’ve never posted my own Six-Word Memoir on But I bring it up in conversation and compose mini-memoirs in my head all the time. It’s a brilliant vehicle for sharing personal stories that are razor-sharp.

This month, as a warm-up for their writing exercises, I started asking my high school English students to write six-word memoirs at the beginning and end of our free-writing sessions. I hoped that my students would eventually find meaning in the practice, and I soon found out that one student had taken ownership of the six-word craft in a way I hadn’t expected.

“Ms. Thompson, I love six-word memoirs!” she said when she came to class one morning. “My mom grounded me from my computer, but I told her I had to log on to SmithMag.”

A week or so later, she came to class radiant.

“People are reading my six-word memoirs now!” she said. “I’m getting comments and people like what I’m writing. One of them recommended that I write posts on”

Today we were preparing for our last day of the in-class state writing test. I was trying to cross a hundred ‘t’s while dotting a thousand ‘i’s before we started our session. But my mentor teacher asked me to pause and hear some good news from this student.

“They gave me the featured memoir of the day!” our student reported.

I was about to tell her how proud I was of her when she showed me the chosen memoir. Now I’m more than proud of her. I am awed. And grateful.

Lesson planning in a suitcase

“Pack it in a small suitcase.”

That’s what a colleague told me after commiserating over our struggle to streamline our lesson plans. There are common core standards to consider, differentiated student needs, personal interests and curiosities, and high hopes for what can be accomplished within a single class period. Like many teachers, I find myself planning multi-layered lessons, only to feel frustrated when they are derailed by student distractions or fly over students’ heads for myriad reasons.

So my colleague’s words, “Pack it in a small suitcase,” were refreshing. As a traveler, it was a metaphor that my mind readily processed. When packing for a trip, my first impulse is usually to pack all 10 of my favorite dresses (or what have you). But when it comes down to actually carrying my suitcase around, I’m a lot happier when I just choose the three dresses that are most versatile (adaptable) and durable.

I’ve kept this in mind while planning out the last quarter of my first teaching year. It hasn’t been about leaving things out, but about narrowing down to key essentials. And, honestly, I’ve felt my load become lighter. Even better, I’ve seen my students ready to grasp on to the carefully-chosen pieces I present to them. A single, small suitcase is a lot easier to carry than a stack.