“Storytime with Wil”: A Read-Aloud for Grown-Ups

once-upon-a-time-whitley-mdThere’s no shortage of anecdata and evidence that reading out loud to children is incredibly important to developing language skills, and a love of reading. Reading out loud can help improve comprehension, vocabulary, and information processing skills. There are many resources to help adults read aloud to children, or help connect other readers with children, or help children read out loud to an audience of their own.

Do grown-ups benefit, too?

Some may feel it juvenile, but I enjoy listening to things. I derive a lot of pleasure from listening to music, for instance. Podcasts and radio programs are some of my favorite ways to absorb nonfiction text. I don’t listen to audiobooks, but I know many adults who do. Why wouldn’t grown-ups also benefit from read-alouds?

My district took the night off from our usual Twitter chat, so when I was dorking around Twitter at 9pm EST with nothing else going on, I saw a link to actor Wil Wheaton‘s Twitch channel, where he was doing a read-aloud of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. (This is apparently a regularly scheduled event.) So, I clicked.

I don’t often visit Twitch, but it’s a social platform for people to watch videos, particularly snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-aida-hiin the gaming community. (It makes sense if you spent hours of childhood waiting for your turn on the Nintendo, then realized that you like watching other people play almost as much as you enjoy playing yourself.) So, it’s an interesting platform for a read-aloud. But Mr. Wheaton has gamified the experience: when the time comes in the story for the reader to make a choice, observers in the chat make their opinion known about which choice they want to make. (The first few choices I watched were close to unanimous, but when it came too close and fast to call, a chatbot helped tally votes.)

However, there were over five hundred (!!!) folks watching the entire time I was participating. (Can you imagine being a teacher reading out loud to over five hundred kids? Yikes.) Still, that is a lot. There was no way you could reasonably expect to be singled out for attention. But, fellowship could be built between the observers, because the chat function (largely ignored by Mr. Wheaton as he read out passages between choices) was also a backchannel. People frequently reacted to Mr. Wheaton and/or the text, then reacted to one another.

I was impressed with (and enjoyed) the experience. Mr. Wheaton, as an actor, reads with gumption, something that would probably make former costar LeVar Burton proud. The community around the activity was energetic but without some of the negative interactions that can color an online experience. Not all five hundred-some viewers were chatting simultaneously, which probably would have been insane. But many were cracking jokes and so on. It was definitely more geared towards adults than for kids (I’d rate it PG-13 with an extra sprinkle of f-bombs).

While our principal reasons for reading aloud to children is to strengthen their literacy, let
us not forget that it can be fun and community-building as well.

Old Dog Teaches Self New Tricks

My mother-in-law (Momil) recently turned seventy years old. She’s a retired teacher, ace grandma, community volunteer, and lifelong learner. She and my father-in-law (Dadil) have very different tastes in television programming, so she often watches shows after they’ve aired on network websites on her computer. My spouse and I thought it might be nice for her to be able to watch those on the TV screen, so we got her a Chromecast for a gift.

11971592541756651845theresaknott_gift-svg-medFirstly, I’ll state that we have a Chromecast at home and I love it. That’s why I thought Momil would enjoy having one. Additionally, I was confident I could set it up for her. After her birthday dinner, I tried to do just that, but it turned out that their wireless router was not strong enough to get its signal to their living room. So it did not get set up that night. The next time my husband went over there, he brought a signal booster that worked very well. (And now Dadil is excited that his laptop gets the signal where it couldn’t before.) He set up the Chromecast device for her using his phone (my in-laws have one flip phone that they share). But, she couldn’t get it working on her computer.

I had planned to go over shortly to help, but before I could, Momil figured it out on her own! By “on her own,” I mean using the tools available to her. She looked up tutorials on setting up Chromecasts and read through step by step until she realized her issue. She did not have Google Chrome, the browser, installed on her computer. She installed it, found the icon she was looking for, and blammo, she was able to play it on the television. She was so excited, and now can’t wait to share it with out-of-town relatives when they come to visit. She’s thinking that it will be so easy to share online content with everybody this way.

The moral of the story is, learning is not about the content, it’s about the process. You can always keep learning as long as you remember, and practice, how to learn.

Electric Ladies, Will You Sleep?

I went to the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. I have every intention of reflecting more on the experience, but at the moment, I’m a bit tired, and I have to prioritize work-related tasks, and sleep.

But if you were wondering why I marched? The shortest possible answer: because Janelle Monáe challenged me to.

I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.

Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
Well I’m gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman
You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly
And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie
Yeah, keep singing and I’mma keep writing songs
I’m tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On?”
March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able
Categorize me, I defy every label
And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

On Reading the Directions

I have started frequently using videos to deliver directions to students. On Google Classroom, it is easy to write a couple of sentences, then attach a video as well as whatever assignment I’m asking students to do.

Before I started blending my classroom, I would stand by the SmartBoard and demonstrate to students step-by-step what I wanted them to do before sending them to their seats. Or, I would stand by the SmartBoard and try to make the kids go step-by-step with me as they followed along from their seats. Both delivery methods left a lot to be desired — kids would forget steps if you told them too many to start with; or computers wouldn’t cooperate and the entire class would get held up because someone needed help troubleshooting. Eventually, I switched to emailing directions (with links) to students, but that wasn’t a perfect system either. Kids would get lost or distracted in their email; directions would get lose effectiveness as they got longer and longer.

Now, with Google Classroom, I am able to give students everything I want them to do… and it’s up to them to use it. They can read the directions, watch the whole video, then start on the assignment if they want to. They can read some of the directions, watch part of the video, then check out the assignment — then go back to the directions or video if they need clarification. They can also dive straight into the assignment, because sometimes you need to become aware of what you don’t already know before you can learn a new thing.

Kids will seek out the information they want. This is not a new concept. Think of Minecraft: it’s a game many play and many more will try, and it comes with no instruction booklet. You learn by doing; or you learn by asking someone else what to do; or you looked it up online; or you saw someone else do it; or you got a book at the book fair. I think the designer may have done this on purpose. It’s not an intimidating game, visually; you certainly feel comfortable exploring before really knowing what you’re doing. But there are so many little things you can’t know unless you look them up, like how to craft a door for your hut, or how best to defend yourself against monsters, or all the steps it takes to grow crops and make food. And this isn’t new to Minecraft. I still dive into video games without more than a glance at any instructions, and that glance has more to do with awesome artwork than learning mechanics.

Kids will seek out the information they want, so I just have to make them want it.

School Week Round-Up: Week Twenty

So, this was a choppy week. Today was a teacher work day, so no students; earlier this week we had a snow day. So it was a three day week for kids, and those three days were not consecutive. Always a treat.

20170112_183237Lessons: Because of the choppiness of the week, lessons went a little funky monkey. I think I did different things with every second and third grade class. But, I did hit on a first grade lesson that went so well, I’m pretty sure it’s what I would leave for a sub in the future. I picked three videos from Art For Kids Hub on Youtube, and posted them in Google Classroom. I provided students with pencils and papers, and they chose a video to watch and draw along. After they were done, they could color their picture (I provided crayons). Then they could add more detail, or try another picture, or move onto a menu of sponge activities to soak up the rest of class time. I wanted to make sure students knew how to pause a video, replay a video, move forward or backward in a video, and so on. I also wanted to use the crayons that never seem to get used in a computer lab. Kids “got” it with minimal fuss or directions, and it wasn’t so tech-heavy that a sub would be totally lost. I used the cartoon butterfly, cartoon octopus, and cartoon pegasus videos. Butterfly was easy to do, octopus was medium (more detailed), and pegasus was most challenging (no symmetry). I also chose those three because they could be any color kids wanted; I expected there’d be fights over yellow crayons if I’d posted the cartoon banana. I’m curious about their easy origami videos too.

Support: I got a Donors Choose project funded (my first!) so this week I was able to distribute 6-port desktop chargers plus lightning cables to teachers who got hand-me-down iPads to use in their classrooms, but not enough chargers to go with them. Plus, the multi-port chargers are going to be so much more convenient for teachers and students, since they don’t have to choose between which devices to charge.

Things I Did Well: 
I have been fine-tuning my last RESA task that I need to pass. It’s not due anytime soon, but I don’t want to leave it til later and stress about it. I feel like I’ve worked really hard on it. If I manage to fail at it this last time, then perhaps this just isn’t where I should be right now in my life.

Things I Will Do Better: I feel like this week was a little experimental, lessons wise. I kind of put out some ideas and strategies to kids without being fully invested in all of them. I wanted to pay attention to how things played out. I know some elements need to be tweaked, and one of them is my own engagement with the students and the content.

Cold Prickly: I’m glad it’s a three day weekend, because I think I’ve got a cold coming on.

Warm FuzzyIs it wrong to admit how excited I am about the Nintendo Switch?

School Week Round-Up: Week Eighteen


Lessons: I used this activity from from Eric Curts for most lessons this week. The kids really enjoyed it, once they got the hang of it! They had done clicking and dragging before, and they had added images to Slides before, but copying and pasting from one slide to another was a new trick for them. Once they got it, though, they really got it.

Here are just a few that got done:

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Support: This past week I came across this piece written from the perspective of an NPR IT specialist. It touches really well on my support struggle from last week.

Almost everyone I’ve ever helped through a computer crisis has been in that frame of mind, and in more than a few cases fixing the computer problem was much less challenging than fixing the user.


Not everyone can be a technical expert, but if you’re going to trust the important pieces of your life to a computer, you owe it to yourself to know the basics of how it does all the wondrous things you wouldn’t want to live without. To do otherwise invests those magical black boxes with more power than they deserve. And it leaves you open to being prey for people who don’t mind exploiting your ignorance for their own gain.

To me, it’s always better to understand why doing something a particular way is the right way — rather than doing it just because you’ve been told it’s the right way.

Michael Czaplinski’s job is to help people with the problems that they have with their technology, whether that problem originates with the technology or with the user. The way I see it, my job is to teach the “magic” – the how and the why the technology works, and what you need to know to work well with it. I want my students and colleagues to become the wizards, or at least know enough to trust only the wizards wearing pants under their robes. (I like this metaphor. It makes me feel like Professor McGonagall from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry).

Also fun, on the last day of school before break started (the day when many teachers are showing movies while students enjoy hot cocoa and cookies as a reward for cleaning out their desks and lockers) our building’s wi-fi went down. And not just our building’s, a couple other buildings in the district were affected. The IT guys spent hours working on it, to no avail. Our improvisation skills were tested!

As for me, I had to do a test-like task with third grade that we missed last week during our snow day. The assignment was on Edcite and sent out to students on Google Classroom… well, at least it was supposed to be. Without internet, that wasn’t happening. Luckily, I had printed out a blank master copy for some reason. I made copies for students, gave them pencils, and had them go at it old school style. It wasn’t ideal, but neither would be waiting until January to do this task… we already have another similar tasked scheduled for then! To their credit, not a single student complained about having to use pencil and paper instead of the computers. Santa, if you’re reading, Mrs. Dawson’s third graders from Parkway Elementary probably each deserve an extra treat this year!

Things I Did Well: 
Improvising. Always, after, I come up with so many other possible solutions I could have run with. But, in a time crunch, I came up with some solutions that I was able to pull off. So did things go perfectly? No. But sometimes “good enough” has to be good enough.

Things I Will Do Better: I was not able to help everyone to their satisfaction this week.

Cold Prickly: This kept coming up in my brain while the wi-fi is down. (For all I know, it’s still down.)

Warm FuzzyOne of the bus drivers is truly a light. (The other bus drivers are probably also very nice, but I usually take the same kids out to the same bus at the end of the day, so I know for a fact that that particular bus driver is the absolute best.) A school bus driver deals with a lot of difficulties — class management, but on wheels! — in addition to weather and traffic hazards. They are not compensated the way I wish they were. It’s a challenging job. So, for a bus driver to be someone else’s light at the end of the day astounds me! She’s got a smile on her face, always, and I hope we help it stay there.

School Week Round-Up: Week Sixteen

I keep intending to write posts during the week, about a variety of topics. And I’ll start. I just don’t finish. So I have something like thirty half-done drafts. I need to work on my follow-through, or on writing conclusions, or both.


Lessons: We had our winter holiday concert this week, and we practiced in the gym during several of my regularly scheduled classes. So, lesson planning and lesson teaching were on the light side this week. But, that also meant I felt a little free-er to try some resources out with students without feeling like I needed them to work perfectly well. Also, I did Hour of Code with some classes (specifically Candy Quest, with most students) and it was, well… it was extremely chill. It’s normal in my room for kids to talk and ask one another for help and be out of their seats within reason, but for whatever reason, when they were doing Hour of Code, it was the quietest my lab has ever been outside of i-Ready time. And i-Ready time is quiet because we enforce quiet at those times; not so with Hour of Code. Kids were still out of their seats and talking with one another, just… more quietly than they usually are. Maybe they were really tired from the concert.

Support: So, I really like our new tech guy, John. Maybe it’s because he’s married to a teacher and is therefore not unfamiliar with our trials, but he strikes me as super not-judgey and really willing and able to suss things out in my style, even if it might be more time-consuming and less convenient on his end. Yesterday we had and email back and forth where we were trying to figure out why a particular desktop… well, it was doing this:

Mysterious, no? We went back and forth, trying to remote him in, though in doing so I realized this only happened when a particular student logged in. So the easiest solve? Switch the student’s seat. It doesn’t happen when he logs into other computers, so whatevs! A delightfully non-technological way to solve a technological problem. (Although John did come back and make it so the computer stopped doing the flashing thing, in the end.)

Things I Did Well: 
Pretty proud of the video I made to play during the holiday concert, during a transition time when students were getting on the stage behind a closed curtain.

Things I Will Do Better: I fell asleep halfway through the district’s weekly Twitter chat. I… should make sure I get more sleep.

Cold Prickly: I missed a PLC meeting because the coverage I had arranged fell through at the last minute. Shucks.

Warm FuzzyWe hosted a program called Donuts for Dads yesterday. We had donuts, we had dads, what more could you ask for in life?

The Positive Side of a Negative School-Related Youtube Experience

2406468228So, at my school, I have a team of third grade students who are responsible for the morning announcements for our school. They are responsible for writing and recording all the news that’s fit to share in our elementary building. They use the Youtube account affiliated with my school email address. I set up a specific computer to keep my password saved if you use a specific login. Other than that, they largely do this themselves at this point. The teachers in the building either check the Youtube website, or subscribe to it in order to share the announcements with their classes. (We use live streaming to record the announcements, but rarely does anyone tune in live, because we are not super consistent when it comes to starting at the same time every day. Plus, teachers share the announcements when it works for them — first grade classes have different morning routines than the second or third grades, for instance.)

I’m very proud of them for this. So I thought some of them could handle an April Fool’s prank version of the announcements. I sought help from friends on Facebook and rewrote our morning announcements in Japanese. (I used to teach in Japan, so I have more contacts who speak Japanese and a better handle on it myself than other non-English languages.) Then, I wrote it out phonetically in the English alphabet. Students took it home and practiced in advance. We still had some pronunciation issues when it came time to record — students pronounced “kyou” as “key-yo” for example — but overall I thought we did quite well. In fact, let me share it here:

We did two different takes, and I spliced them together to make one video, thinking it would be more convenient to the other teachers. I had it up around 8:30am on April 1st, then sent an explanatory email around 8:40am in case anyone was truly confused.

Then, at 9:39am, I received an email notifying me that the video had been removed from Youtube for violating the community guidelines.

This was frustrating, firstly because I simply did not agree that the video violated Youtube’s community guidelines. I assume, even now, that someone flagged it in error. However, the email included this sentence: “After reviewing the content, we’ve determined that the videos violate our Community Guidelines. ” Ugh! No reasonable human reviewed that content and genuinely determined it inappropriate. I expect Youtube runs algorithms to do some sort of initial sorting. I’m annoyed that the algorithm was so far off, yet reassured that the machines are not yet ready to take over.

A bigger issue than that would have been that my account would be “in bad standing,” which locks up some of Youtube’s features for channels. In this case, it would have lasted six months, and I would have had to find some way other than live streaming to do morning announcements. Finding a new way to do morning announcements would not have been the biggest challenge; the biggest challenge would have been re-training my news teams when it’s the last quarter of the school year and they have standardized testing coming up. They don’t need that extra stress!

Luckily, Youtube has an appeal process, which I made use of immediately. It took almost a whole day, but the video was ultimately reinstated and my account is back in good standing.

Am I happy that happened? No, but I am grateful for it. Social media, including Youtube, is, well, social. And not every social interaction, on or offline, goes the way I want it to every time. Sometimes that means I have to revise my expectations. Sometimes that means I have to reflect on what I say, what I do, how I say it, or how I do it, and make a change. Sometimes I have to give someone else the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t want to just opt out at this point. I might be able to live the rest of my own life off of social media… but will my students? If I back away after I get an email that makes me feel sad, I may not be qualified to mentor my students in the digital era. I can not promise to make the online world completely 100% safe for them and their feelings anymore than I can promise that they’ll never fall off the monkey bars on the playground. But I can show them what to do and how to manage their reactions when they come up against an obstacle.

UPDATED TO ADD: I feel better about my experience with (likely automated) censorship when I read about the lady whose photo of a cake got her Instagram account suspended.