Monday, December 31, 2007

Mid Year's Day thoughts

It's New Year's Eve, and I've been barraged by print, TV, and now blogs with end of the year reflections. You know - best of, worst of...

But I'm smack dab in the middle of a school year. If I start thinking back to February or March of 2007, it's sooo long ago. Those kids in that class are no longer a close part of my life. How can I think about the year of 2007 as a separate entity? It has two distinct and incomplete parts: the class of 2006-07, and the class of 2007-08.

It is this annual cycle of the classroom teacher. It starts in August and ends in June. There is a definite rhythm and pacing to a year - starting up, getting to know you, building skills, building relationships, more, more, more, and then letting go. I doubt there are many professions with such a cycle, especially where you start all over every year.

It's like a living, breathing organism. You get to "be" a part of that special organism for ten months, then shed its skin (which takes a part of you with it every time), and then take a deep breath and do it all over again.

But I love it. I love the age I teach (8/9 year olds, third grade), and I love the process.

There is much handwringing going on in some edtech blogs as the year "ends". Much ado about the state of schools, the educational system, what's wrong with teachers, why teach anymore, etc. Here are three noteworthy ones, especially because of the comments:

I thought about adding my 2 cents on all of them, but I ran out of gas. I am outraged at many of the same things these guys talk about. But this is what keeps me going:

The 9:00 bell. That's when the kids come in the door. Thank goodness for the kids. There, I've said it again.

Yes, it kills me when I see dysfunction in my educational system. Yes, it breaks my heart when I see 4th and 5th graders not using, and losing, the incredible tech skills they had in my classroom. Yes, it is incredibly frustrating when absolutely nothing I have tried in over a decade of encouraging technology use with my colleagues has made a bit of difference.

But that 9:00 bell keeps ringing. For one year my kids and I will have an incredible experience. Nobody can take that away from us, and my kids will remember.

So, Happy Mid Year to all you classroom teachers out there, especially Clarence, Doug, Brian, and Sarah. Enjoy the rest of it!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Leaving town to find the neighborhood

It's Christmas, and I'm having a great time playing. Today I had a couple of hours, during which I left my little house and connected to people in my town - because I first connected with a worldwide network.

My vehicle for this trip was my XO laptop, named Lincoln.

An OLPC NeighborhoodI had been following Tom Hoffman's posts about the OLPC, and found one of particular interest: Up Seemed cool to try out, so I managed to get connected today - and was amazed as little XO user icons began to populate my "Neighborhood". Great fun, and a little intimidating, as I wasn't sure exactly what to do... I asked a couple of folks to chat (I think), joined a couple of chats, and looked in on a couple of shared activities: drawing and photo/video (this made me nervous, so I didn't stay long)...

With mouse over the XO users, I saw a couple of names I recognized. Then I found one who ID'd himself from Seattle. A short Google search brought me to an XO user group - in Seattle! They even have a blog - and a F2F meeting tomorrow. I don't think I can make the meeting, but I'm definitely following the blog. I know a few of the people involved. Such a small world, but sometimes you have to travel far to find what's in your back yard.

Bouyed with confidence, I decided to try installing Opera on my XO, since the the default browser is definitely wimpy. Now, that was a challenge. I felt like I was back in the early nineties, groping around in DOS... Point and click, what's that? Only a couple of typos interrupted my progress, until I eventually had Opera running - and added as an "Activity" to my interface. Many thanks to those maintaining the OLPC wiki on the Opera install for making the procedure pretty clear and relatively painless. Web browsing is already ten times better - and once I get the hang of Opera, it'll be great. The machine really is pretty quick on the web.

Funny that it took flying so far to find something right around the corner. Such is the world in which we live.

I can't wait to get this little laptop running in my classroom. There are classroom networks and neighborhoods forming around the XO right now. I want to be ready for this. Maybe we'll find another class in Seattle :)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Three Amigos

The Three Amigos
Originally uploaded by mahlness

Overwhelmed with an embarrassment of laptops, here they all are, with the TV in the background. Left to right:

FW: New Feature: "Teacher Assignments"

I mentioned this before here as a part of a larger bunch of thoughts. It is such a wonderful development that I think it needs its own space and mention. I just posted this to my classroom blog on Classblogmeister:

To the readers of this blog, there is a new feature here which you might find interesting: "Teacher Assignments". In the left column of this page are assignments given by me (the teacher, Mr. Ahlness) to the third graders at

So if you are interested in reading different points of view on and different interpretations of those assignments, please check out this feature by clicking on an assignment. All student writing on that topic will be listed in the center column (where you are reading now), underneath my description and expectations of the writers.

Many thanks to
David Warlick for adding this to our blog. Happy Holidays! - Mr. A.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Merry Christmas Story - and Poem

Doug Noon just posted a wonderful holiday greeting from E. B. White. Thank you, Doug. In that spirit of sharing on a special day, here's a poem, and a story that came our way today, on Christmas.

My wife and I were midway through our walk through our neighborhood park, and I thought the home-brewed stout I had in my pocket would have to wait for another day. But out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris. We called out, waved, and I ran over to him. I delivered the stout a little sheepishly (you would too, if you were delivering one you made to an Irishman who knows a good stout) . It has become a bit of a tradition.

Handshakes, laughs, and many thank you's later, we parted, but I heard a faint, "Mark...!" We stopped. Chris ran up to us and hurriedly put in my hand a poem he said his sister had sent him - with his reply below. We did not read it until we got home. It had started to snow...









WM. DAVIES 1871-1940.

We do indeed have time,
to stand and stare and thank
our god for all we see.
It is the same in any
age, if we but realize
that all we see is passing
and has no permanence.

Christmas 2007 Snow cThe comment is so Chris, the ultimate Irish philosopher and nature lover. Added by hand with a manual typewriter, I'm pretty sure. If there were ever a time to think about this, it would be now.

It's snowing at the moment in Seattle - hard - on Christmas. Unbelievable.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blogging, responsibility, and letting go

So much happened in my third grade classroom the week before Christmas Vacation. We finished up their first PowerPoint presentations ("How to make a six sided snowflake", done in cooperative pairs). They wrote scripts for a video of "how to make a six sided snowflake". This was to be their first video. They storyboarded, and they task analyzed - again. They performed and recorded, and a few partners actually produced a simple movie, with title/credits and some simple transition effects. I hope to have a few of them available on the Internet soon. Then they blogged - see below...

Holiday decorations 2007aThe last day they created "stained glass" windows. It's always tough as Christmas approaches in elementary school. Everybody wants to be visited by Santa, no matter what their religion. There are wish lists appearing everywhere, even on their blogs. So we went for it. Even listened to The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg - read by Liam Neeson on that last day.

But eclipsing all this glitzy technology and holiday celebration was the WRITING they were doing on their blogs. I have not seen this much productivity before. There is a true writing frenzy going on in my classroom. I start and direct some of it, but a lot arises organically from the environment I've created. I have had to redefine and stretch that environment regularly - because my kids want to write.

(As you look below, please understand, for a teacher to be able so see for himself, for parents and kids to see, and indeed the world to look at an assignment and see what each child did with it, how they compared with their peers, etc - is just phenomenal. One more incredible development David Warlick has added to Classblogmeister!)

They write when they are supposed to at "writing time", but also when they finish other work early, when it's recess, when they have earned "free time", and so on. The culture of the classroom is changing.

When people talk about student directed learning, they are often referring to older students. Elementary school teachers are real clear on what happens when you just let students decide what they want to do - chaos - and not much learning. You can't just let them go, for goodness sake. Overly simplistic here, I know, but for a teacher, well, it can be a big stretch, and a larger leap of faith, to loosen the decision-making boundary.

But in my classroom of third graders, we have been playing with that boundary. It's not always pretty, and it's hard for the kids sometimes when they do not see, hear, and feel the teacher imposed boundary they are so used to. It's hard for the teacher, too :) It is a dance we do, the setting and relaxing of these boundaries and responsibilities.

Holiday decorations 2007bOh well. "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't" - Chief Dan George, in Little Big Man - one of my favorite movie lines of all time. And that's what it often feels like right now. And in the mystery and uncertainty of the days just before Christmas, it feels good to go to a more relaxed and trusting place, knowing it is all good.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Holiday greetings from the guys

It has been very quiet on the blogs I usually read. I imagine many are scrambling with last minute shopping and family plans for the holidays.

In the chaos of the last week of school before Christmas Vacation, I managed to snag a couple of videos that I hope capture some of the joy, the fun, the spontaneity, and the delight that is still possible - as a teacher in an elementary school. With apologies to the ladies (sort of) from an oppressed minority:

The Men's Cookie Exchange (

The Men's Bell Choir (premiere performance)

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

OLPC - Merry Christmas!

OLPC - Merry Christmas!
Originally uploaded by mahlness
OK, the little guy arrived in Seattle on Dec 19th. One hour later I am blogging this from its cute mini keyboard. Been on the Internet (to school first of course), been to MySpace, uploaded this picture to Flickr from it, and am posting this via Flickr. Did not read one bit of directions - there weren't any with it, anyway. Managed to figure it out with oldster intuition. Kids would have figured it out twice as fast.

No matter what you hear about this, it is simply breathtaking. One Laptop Per Child - the buy one, give one program goes through Dec 31st in North America.

Somewhere in a place where they don't have much, some kid will be having a fantastic time with one just like this little guy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Too much

Sometimes we bite off too much. It's only Wednesday evening, and I feel like it should be Sunday night. Don't try this at home (while teaching third grade):

  • Monday - Family Internet Night, in my classroom, 6-7 PM. Six families in attendance, about 20 people. A new PowerPoint presentation, recorded audio for video mesh of mp3/ppt, coming soon.

  • Tuesday - Presentation/participation in, via speakerphone, the K-20 Network's Board Meeting. My third graders and I all had a chance to contribute, in our classroom. Using 19th century tools to talk about 21st century practices... (maybe more here later on this)

  • Tuesday evening - Family Internet Night, as on Monday - a repeat presentation for those who could not make it Monday - six in attendance: two families and a colleague. Recorded part that I missed on Monday. (had enough snacks left over - whew) . The video here is a screencast of the version from December, 2006. Live screencast version coming soon...

  • Wednesday - Jr Seahawk News Reporter meeting in my classroom. Snacks, writing via the news reporter blog.

  • Wednesday - Introduction of video production, via RCA Small Wonder, of How to Make a Six Sided Snowflake (and completion of PowerPoint presentation of the same).

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Alumni - Your Blogs are Back!

I just posted the following to my classroom blog at

To all past bloggers here at - all of your blog articles are back online! For the past few weeks, they have been unavailable, while the servers for classblogmeister were upgraded.

So, for those in Room Twelve from 2005-06, your blogs are all intact, right here, where they always have been. There is also a "Related Link" to your blog on the upper left corner of this page.

For those in Room Twelve in 2006-07, your articles are now ALL back, under "Room Twelve Alumni", on the right side of this page.

Many, many thanks to David Warlick, for giving us Classblogmeister, the wonderful tool that lets us blog here safely!

May not seem like such a big deal, but I had groups of former students coming in to my class asking about their blogs - like, what happened to our blogs? Are they gone?

Although most of these kids are not actively contributing (right now), it's clear their writing is still important to them - even what they wrote way back in third grade.

I wonder if they'd be checking back with me just to be sure I had their Writing Portfolio from third grade intact - or if I'd I had passed it on - and if their 4th and 5th grade teachers had their third grade writing safely tucked away in manilla folders in file cabinets...?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Men Bake Better, 2007

OK, the holidays are fast approaching, and it's time to let go of some of those debilitating worries about being all PC.

At my school, for the 11th straight year, the men are preparing for The Men's Cookie Exchange. If you are a male teacher in a school, please consider organizing the guys - and sending us your story/recipes/pictures/video! We will share it on our web site and our wiki!.

Sara Moulton Special aGosh, a few years ago we even had Sara Moulton feature us in a Food Network Special. Here Sara takes a picture of us during a break in the filming in my classroom. She spent the day with her crew at my house and in my classroom. We play the video of the special every year at our event. We've definitely had our 15 minutes! Be sure to check out: Dave's Christmas Crunch Cookies and my Toffee Bars - both featured in the show.

Here's a slideshow of my set on Flickr, with pictures going back to 1998, of the Men's Cookie Exchange. Just a bunch of guys having fun:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

We may have eight bakers this year! Guys, please join in! Our results will be posted on the web, the wiki, and YouTube, of course.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Two steps forward...

...and only one step back, that's progress. Today I introduced my third grade bloggers to PowerPoint, a program and technology older than they are. For goodness sakes, they've been blogging for two months. Yikes!

You'd think it was a backward step, but I look at it as necessary:
  • They will need to know how to use this program in their immediate future, as they move through middle and high school. I believe in that short term, PowerPoint is a necessary critical skill to know - one that will help them, will give them a leg up if they are fluent in its use. I know this sounds really stodgy, but I am visited regularly by middle school kids who thank me for teaching them how to use this program...
  • I'm ultimately moving toward video production with them, and it seems like this is a necessary step - kind of like doing a storyboard before you write a book (excuse the 20th century analogy). We DID do paper/pencil storyboard work last week, in task analysis work for a "How To" writing piece.
  • For the kids I teach, PowerPoint has the perfect learning curve, with enough carrots along the way that they absolutely gobble up the knowledge and crave more...
  • I see it as a prerequisite, in terms of students preparing a quality presentation of an idea for a multimedia world. For a wonderful exploration of web 2.0 technologies from an artistic design perspective, see Dean Shareski's presentation from the K12 Online Conference "Design Matters".
  • Finally, the beginning mastery of this program, as I teach it, encourages collaboration, exploration, and fearlessness in approaching the unknown. In their future workplaces these kids will go far, I believe it.

Every year, for the past 6 or 7 years, I have introduced PowerPoint to my third graders. Every group I've had is able to do twice as much as the previous year has - in the same amount of time. So we ultimately get more sophisticated than, and we will go much farther than, their predecessors.

Look for "How to Make a Six-Sided Snowflake" - in multiple forms, soon....

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