May 11


Recently, we initiated a landscaping project at our house. It consisted of adding some hardscape, a few new plants, and rearranging some existing plants. As I observed the process in motion, it spoke to me as an exemplar of what we should implement in our classrooms and schools.

When the owner/operator of the landscaping company, Mr. M,  first came to assess the work we wanted done, he asked many questions. We hammered out a rough idea of what we wanted, both hard and soft scape. He showed us samples of different stones, and we chose one. This is similar to the design process of a good inquiry- design- or project-based undertaking. I appreciate both the Stanford and IDEO methodologies regarding design thinking. Although the vernacular varies somewhat between the various definitions, the underlying principles remain constant.

Stone Wall

Stone wall by David R Tribble is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Throughout the implementation process, Mr. M confirmed details with me such as the pattern the stones were to be set in. He adjusted his plan accordingly. This exemplifies the iterative process of design thinking, wherein one develops a prototype or first draft, then refines it, often multiple times, based on testing and feedback.

When Mr. M presented a written quote for the work to be done, we were prepared to negotiate with him, to find ways to reduce the price or increase the services rendered, or both. However, the quote was so reasonable and comprehensive, we found it unnecessary to negotiate. This conveyed to me his authenticity. Mr. M portrayed who he is – a competent landscaper who is proud of his work and provides his services at a fair price.

Authenticity is a characteristic gaining traction in many arenas, including education. As Sam Seidel phrases it, we need to  “keep it real.” In order for students to fully engage with a topic, they need to connect with it in some way. Talking about dry, dusty dates from the past is not real, nor is an out-of-context math formula. However, comparing Andrew Jackson with Donald Trump leads to student connection. Similarly, building a greenhouse makes those math formulas very real.

York U Greenhouse

York U Greenhouse by Raysonho is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Mr. M also portrayed his identity through his branding. Each of the numerous trucks that came and went had identical signage on their sides. The signs included the company name, a list of services, and contact information. What is our “brand,” our culture? BIE’s John Larmer, in this article cites a definition of culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” The more clarity we have in our definition, and the more closely we align our practices with the definition, the more our culture flourishes.

The interactions of the landscaping team were also telling of the climate in which they work. I could not understand most of the words of their conversations, but could nonetheless interpret the temperament of the group:

  1. The majority of the time, Mr. M was present and worked alongside his men. Not a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” In this Edutopia article about this methodological shift, Dan Jones states “[w]hen teachers move from the front of the room to working beside students, students begin to take a deeper ownership of the learning process and produce a meaningful connection with the material.”
  2. The men laughed, joked, and chatted with good humor. I never heard a voice raised in anger or impatience. The group was varied in age, and probably in experience, but they functioned as a collaborative team. As Aaron Brengard states in this BIE article, “[c]ollaboration is an essential part of our culture… it raises up the quality of all work.” He further discusses the importance of collaboration not only within student teams, but among the adults in schools, and how “[w]e believe that working together makes us better and without one another we will not reach the level of work that brings us closer to exceeding our expectations.”
  3. Each person seemed to know the tasks they were to complete, and tackled them with industry and enthusiasm. When there was a question, it was answered quickly, with a straightforward response. Elena Aguilar, in this post about effective teams, includes two traits that I observed among the landscaping crew: “[a] good team knows why it exists” and “[m]embers of a good team trust each other.”
  4. They took breaks. For lunch, and a few other times in the day. As they sat, they continued to chat among themselves. The parallel I draw in PBL practice is the time we spend in reflection. It is an opportunity to review what went well, what went poorly, how did I/we grow, what is the next goal. In this Edutopia article, James Kobialka offers some great ideas for effective reflection.

It seems apropos that I found parallels between a landscaping project and school settings. We all function within a landscape of some type. I wish all of us a lush, colorful, growing garden as our habitat.

Lush garden

Lush garden by Lynn Greyling is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

November 14

#DigiWriMo Storyjumping Part 18: The Cold November Rain

This is part 18 of a storyjumper for Digital Writing Month. To read the whole story (so far):

Part 1 Bruno’s blog started us off with a personal narrative.

Part 2 Kevin’s blog began the story.

Part 3 Maha’s blog continued…

Part 4 Sarah’s blog…

Part 5 Ron’s blog…

Part 6 Tanya’s blog…

Part 7 Kay’s blog…

Part 8 Ron’s blog…

Part 9 Dana’s blog

Part 10 Tania’s blog

Part 11 Maureen’s blog

Part 12 Sue’s blog

Part 13 Rhonda’s blog

Part 14 Yin Wah Kreher’s blog

Part 15 Scott’s blog

Part 16 Jeffrey’s blog

Part 17 Wendy’s blog

For a geographical map of participants, click here. If you would like to participate, add your name to this Google Doc.


[As they turned the next corner they could not believe their eyes. Their two friends Smidgy and Wry were walking towards them! They ran towards them with huge grins and a laugh. The first thing they said was …..]

…”Smidgy! Wry! What’re you doing here? We thought we were the only legal aliens here!”

They hugged each other fiercely, feeling centered for the first time since arriving here in this odd Times-Square-that-was-not-quite-Times-Square. They stood in the drizzle, talking excitedly, until Haras realized she was drenched, and chilled to the bone. “Keith and I were looking for a tea house. Do you know where we could go?” “Ah, I know exactly the place,” responded Wry. She led the way as they hopped the subway to the West Village.

Bosie Tea House

Once inside the tea house, Keith and Haras were unsettled to see a blind man sitting and running his fingers over a tattered map. “Um, guys,” said Haras, “maybe we should go somewhere else.” “Oh, no worries,” replied Smidgy, “that’s Facino Cane. He plays the clarinet and has been looking forward to you two bringing your sax and uke to jam with him. He’s been standing outside holding a candle in the cold November rain, hoping you would show up.”

Still uncertain, Haras approached the old man. “Excuse me, sir, who are you?” “Haras!,” he replied. “I’ve been waiting for you. There was a scuffle somewhere… it’s all fuzzy, but I think Keith was involved…?”

Keith approached even more cautiously, remembering the altercation at his house. “You know, old man, even though my fear has subsided somewhat, shadows still remain. I mean, we’re not even really in New York, I’m not really Keith, and you died like 200 years ago.”

Abruptly, the old man jumped out of his chair and grabbed Wry*. “Where’s the other map?,” he demanded. Whirling, he turned and faced the other three. “If you don’t hand over the other map, your friend here dies. You think you have two weeks to figure it out, but here where we are, it’s November 29th.”

[Over to Wry*, aka Mariam Shoaib]

November 5

#AltCV and #DigiWriMo

Phew. That’s all I can say. When the #DigiWriMo folks issued the call to create an “alternative CV,” “based not on degrees and position and peer-reviewed publications, but on what we think is most important about who we are and what we are genuinely most proud to have accomplished,” I decided to make the exercise a challenge. More of a challenge than I anticipated, really.

Animaker is a tool I have barely glanced at, but which has fascinated me for some time. So, I decided to use it to create my #AltCV. Thus the adventure began. Animaker has an eleven-and-a-half minute tutorial. I watched it once. Fumbled through assembling a few “scenes.” Several things did not come together as I wanted them to. Went through the tutorial again, to find the explanation for the nuances I was missing. Like all good learning experiences, the process was iterative. I would make some modifications, replay the video, identify the improvements I needed to make. Again and again.

In my work as a PBL (project-based learning) coach, this is an aspect I impress upon teachers. Students need to be given feedback on their work, and the time to revise. Not only once, but multiple times. My all-time favorite example of this is Ron Berger’s video of  Austin’s Butterfly:

It is all too common for educators to get caught up in the but-I-have-all-this-content-to-cover mindset, so students don’t have the occasion to delve deeply into any given topic, nor do they have the opportunity to reflect on their work, and to make improvements.

This year in our Meliora group, we are studying World History. To some, I will sound like a heretic, but I care little about what these students carry away in knowledge and facts about World History (well, I do hope they remember “les grandes lignes,” the major points). What I mostly care about is that they develop deeper thinking and analytic skills. We spend significant time discussing events in history, and making connections to today, to my students’ reality. By using open-ended questions, “why?” and “how do you know?” being perhaps my favorites, the students are required to think, and to defend their rationale.

I also care that the students learn to reflect on their work, and to actively find ways to improve it. As they develop projects, I offer feedback throughout the process. They also conduct peer reviews of each other’s work, so they can learn to critique using “kind, helpful and specific” (a phrase coined by Ron Berger) feedback.

As I went through the development of my #AltCV, I was also applying Standford’s d. school ideology of “iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution.” As they further explain in the excerpt below, iteration is fundamental to good design. Interestingly, they discuss iterations within a process, in my case the complete video, and then within a step, in my case a single scene. That is exactly how I tackled it, narrowing my focus as the flow began to take shape.

d school design thinking excerpt

I would argue this design process can be applied to many, if not all, academic disciplines. When I work with Meliora students on their history projects, we first look at the big picture, their overall argument/thesis, then over time narrow the focus to particular details that need fleshed out and refined. Likewise, when solving a math problem students need to learn to determine the process to be used, then drill down to the detail. And so forth.

And, now, for my #AltCV:


October 10

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person (Part 2)

In part 1 of my story of autodidacts found here, I describe an experience my son went through last spring, moving from oh-no-let-me-run-away to being labeled an autodidact by his German professor. He has continued his German learning this fall, with the same professor. At least he knows what to expect!

It has been very interesting to watch from the sidelines as he has grown from I’m-still-not-so-sure-I-have-what-it-takes-to-succeed to enthusiastically embracing the challenges his professor offers. Among a class of about 15 students, he and one other are more “advanced,” so the professor has invited them to take on more demanding work. One thing about this professor that thrills me is he uses real literary works, not a dry, dusty textbook. This is in keeping with the project-based learning (PBL) principle of authenticity, defined by the Buck Institute for Education as  “real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.”


The professor recently gave these two students a German-language graphic novel version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and is meeting with them one-on-two to discuss the book and to give them individualized assignments. My son arrived home and enthusiastically showed me the book, marveling at the fine artwork. In addition, with a grin he said “Mom, by the time I go to college, I will be ready to do my capstone in German.” [He is dual-enrolled, receiving both high school and college credit, as he is a high school sophomore.] How far he has come, from that uncertain learner to total confidence in his success. I wish every student’s experience could have such a magnificent outcome!

October 10

Downton Abbey & Frog and Toad – a #twistedpair

In response to Steve Wheeler’s #twistedpair prompt, I combined the British TV series Downton Abbey with the timeless classic early reader series Frog and Toad, written by Arnold Lobel.

Downton Abbey and Frog and Toad both declare unequivocally that life contains many unexpected turns and outcomes. In “The Corner,” Frog tells Toad how when he was young, his father once told him “spring is just around the corner.” Frog proceeds to explore various “corners,” and encounters many things, but not spring. Congruent with this, Downton Abbey character Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith) declares at one point, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve.” Every education experience should similarly contain “corners” and problems, sometimes uncomfortable ones, for both the teacher and the students.

Frog and Toad are Friends book cover

In the story “The Kite,” Frog is holding the ball of kite string, and Toad is running with the kite. The first attempts to get the kite to fly end in failure. Three robins who are watching laugh at Toad and tell him the kite will not fly. Each time, Toad tells Frog they should give up, and each time Frog tells him to try again.

Eventually, the kite “flew into the air. It climbed higher and higher.” Frog summarizes their experience by saying “If a running try did not work, and a running and waving try did not work, and a running, waving, and jumping try did not work, I knew that a running, waving, jumping, and shouting try just had to work.”

We all have encountered some of those robin naysayers. We need to model Frog’s attitude to our students, and not only teach, but also live, the growth mindset, wherein we believe that solutions are not always evident the first time, and that learning from mistakes and failure helps us grow. It is also important to show kindness and encouragement, just as Frog does.  And, we need to be willing to say “I don’t know” to questions students may ask, and then learn alongside them, exemplifying what it  means to be a #lifelonglearner. Just as Frog does, when after exploring many “corners,” sees his mother and father working in the garden, and flowers growing. As he explains to Toad, “I was very happy. I had found the corner that spring was around.”

If a running try did not work, and a running and waving try did not work, and a running, waving, and jumping try did not work, I knew that a running, waving, jumping, and shouting try just had to work.

In Downton Abbey, which depicts a gentrified family and their servants as they face the sweeping social changes of the 20th Century, Violet Crawley is very stately, dignified and seemingly strait-laced. Yet, not long into the series, it becomes apparent she has a great deal of compassion for the difficulty of choices her three granddaughters face.

Violet Crawley - Series of Problems

When one of these young women, Edith, is considering working as a writer for a newspaper office, other members of the family plead for Violet to “talk sense into her,” to get her to understand that a woman’s place is in the home. In response, Violet states “I do think a woman’s place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.” She further says “And another thing. I mean, Edith isn’t getting any younger. Perhaps she isn’t cut out for domestic life.” At the same time, The Dowager seeks to instill mental strength into these young woman, at one point telling Edith “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class.”

As teachers, we work with students who are also faced with many choices; influenced by their peers, their parents, their environment, and the constant media bombardment. Just like Violet Crawley, we need to set a standard of conduct for ourselves that exemplifies mature adult behavior (which does not mean we cannot have fun!). At the same time, we need to show compassion, seeking to truly know our students, and to connect with them in their reality.

Although Frog and Toad and Downton Abbey are intended for different audiences, they both portray that human beings (which include all our students!) are complex, in need of encouragement and support, but also invigorated by challenge. 

“Downton Abbey Violet Crawley Quotes.” . QuotesGram. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Fellowes, Julian. “Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 7.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Fellowes, Julian. “Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 8.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Lobel, Arnold. Days with Frog and Toad. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Print.
Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad All Year. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.

July 5

#CLMOOC 2015 Make #2

I have enthusiastically charged into #CLMOOC again this year. Although some of my efforts seem more like limping along than charging!

For our second “make,” we were invited to “consider how the media we compose within (like print, sound, still and moving image, or objects) influence how we communicate and interpret.” Furthermore, we were asked to “mediate and re-mediate and reflect on how the affordances of different media impact our choices, processes, and meanings.”

Simultaneous with the beginning of this make cycle, I was brooding over the recent tragedy in South Carolina, where Dylann Roof killed nine people. Although I was feeling sad about those pointless deaths, I was even more sad that a general reaction was to get rid of all Confederate flags.

I understand that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racial hatred, and stirs negative emotions in some people. But, it is also part of our history. If we try to ignore or bury history, we will encounter even more dire consequences.

So, I decided I would use that topic for this week’s make. After some consideration, I settled on ThingLink as the platform, because I wanted to develop some proficiency with it, and to analyze its potential is as a teaching and learning tool.

As I have noted in the past, free versions of software tend to be limited, limiting, and frustrating. This is definitely true of ThingLink. In the end, I chose to upgrade to “pro” with a 14-day free trial.

What I learned as I worked (fought?) with this tool is that my process for creating this multimedia “essay” was similar to what I would do if simply writing a text essay. I needed a thesis. I had to research, looking for credible primary and secondary sources. I needed to organize my argument, and support it with evidence.

What was different than a traditional essay is that I could incorporate images, videos, and music in further support of my textual argument. By using numbered “tags,” I could also draw the audience through my argument in a logical, coherent sequence.

Much of what I was able to accomplish I quite like. I am, however, frustrated with the inability to clip video or audio segments. I would like to incorporate only the pieces that are most relevant. I could download a video, edit it, re-upload it to YouTube and then include it in the ThingLink. Ditto for music from SoundCloud. It seems like an awkward, time-consuming workaround.

ThingLink does allow the (pro) user to upload images from a computer. Why is the same capability not available for video and audio? I could edit the elements to my liking on my laptop, then upload them to ThingLink.

I also dislike how the viewer of a ThingLink image is forced to click on tags and media elements within tags in order to initiate a response. I would much prefer that the creator be able to control the response at all entry points. For example, when the viewer hovers over a tag, music utomatically starts playing. Or, when s/he clicks on a tag, a video begins.

ThingLink also seems designed to encourage the viewer to interact in any order on the image. In the case of my essay, I want the viewer to follow a given sequence, to be able to logically follow the flow of my argument. So, I imagined numbering the tags as a way of creating the proper flow. However, the number icons, both native to ThingLink and others I found readily available, all end at 9 or 10.

Since I have more than ten tags, my next hurdle was to create an icon set of my own. That was another learning process that chewed up hours of my time. I will, however, be much more efficient whenever I face icon creation again!

I can imagine ThingLink as an effective teaching tool. Teachers can incorporate multimedia elements, offering students information in a variety of formats, from many different sources. By diversifying the presentation of information, teachers create a richer learning environment, which may improve student engagement.

Editing a ThingLink image is also straightforward, so it would be easy to update a presentation with new, different, or additional information without reengineering the whole design.

Conversely, students could use ThingLink as a tool for exhibiting their learning. It would allow them to organize their evidence of learning and easily present it to a broad public audience. It has many potential uses, not just for persuasive writing. A few examples:

My next effort with ThingLink will be to create or redesign professional development I do as a #PBL (project-based learning) coach so that I can model its use.

To take a look at my finished product:


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May 16

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person

I am currently a PBL (Project-based learning) coach, helping schools transform themselves from traditional forms of teaching and learning into a model that emphasizes deep, investigative, collaborative, student-centered learning. I came to this career through a circuitous path.

My first career was in information technology, where I spent nearly two decades. I began with computer programming, systems analysis, customer support, and the like. Over a period of time, I gravitated to project management, where I enjoyed a number of extremely challenging, thrilling, hair-pulling, personal growth years.

In the final multi-million dollar projects I facilitated, there were team members from a diverse set of companies, nationalities, and cultures. In those experiences, I engaged in my own real-world learning of becoming a global citizen, a reality our students will face as they enter the work force.

Those years also contributed greatly to my understanding of PBL as a methodology. The underlying concepts of projects and project management are constant, regardless of the industry.

Then, I became a stay-at-home mom. By choice. Definitely the most difficult job I have ever had. But, that’s a different post. When my now-20-year-old son was still a toddler, I began exploring the idea of home schooling. My bosom buddy was already of that mind set, and after research of my own on the advantages, I took the plunge.

During the fifteen years that have elapsed since we formally began schooling at home, I have revised and honed my education philosophy in many iterations, using my two sons as guinea pigs. One fabulous advantage of being a home educator is that if you (or your child) dislike materials, you get rid of them (hopefully by selling them to someone else), even if you are only two weeks into the school year, and then move on.

Over the years, it became apparent to me that the methodology that worked best for me and my kids was student-interest based. This conclusion was further cemented as I took college courses related to education methodologies, and researched the positives that PBL brings to the table, such as that its use “increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.”

In our home school, we incorporated lots of investigation, whether wading into a pond to see what lives there, going to museums, creating explosions with cohorts of other home school families, watching documentaries, or building marble runs and trying to get the marbles to go where they were supposed to.

My critter lover brought things home from the pond and built habitats for them. He also had any number of domesticated pets, including frogs, snakes, fish, rats… YouTube became his go-to place to learn nearly everything, not only about his pets, but how to tie a necktie and screen print a shirt.

My thinker child devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction, and contemplated the world from angles I have never considered. We carried on magnificent discussions on everything from Calvin & Hobbes to Socrates (although these may be one and the same).

A recent experience younger son (currently 16) went through brought the value of this methodology all home to me. He is taking German at a local four-year liberal arts college, where he breezed through the first two terms, putting some effort into the class, but not a ton. The third term is being taught by a different professor, who on the first day of class announced that the students should expect to spend ten hours outside class each week on their homework. Oh, and by the way, he only gives a 100% or 0% on assignments, so students need to be extremely diligent in their work (another post sometime about the effectiveness of that approach!).

My son came home practically hyperventilating, and began campaigning to drop the class because it was certain to be too hard and too stressful. I assured him he had three weeks to decide whether he really needed to drop the course, and also stated that he shouldn’t run away from the challenge just because it seemed difficult.

Within a week, the waters had calmed, and the German studies were marching along quite well. The professor didn’t seem quite an all-or-nothing kind of guy. The homework wasn’t taking quite as much time as predicted. Further progress in mastering the German language was being made.

Then, my son came home and said the professor had declared him an autodidact. This was the most brilliant praise I could receive as a home (or any other) educator. Isn’t that our ultimate goal? To develop our students into autodidacts? Our job is not to stuff information into them so they can regurgitate it. Our job is to teach them the concepts and skills that inspire them to remain learners throughout their lifetime. As part of that, we need to help them develop a growth mindset, to realize hard work and persistence are effective in building competence and success.

Now to carry this success forward, to the schools I am currently working with, and to others that embrace PBL. Too many opportunities, too little time.

April 26

#rhizo15 subjectives

So… I decided to jump into the middle of #rhizo15. As a newbie, I felt/feel bewildered by the intent of this particular MOOC. As a sometimes gardener, I know what a rhizome is in terms of plants, and The American Oxford Dictionary substantiated my understanding:

A continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.
Syllabification: rhi·zome
Pronunciation: /ˈrīˌzōm/

I learned a new word from this definition – adventitious, defined as “arising or occurring sporadically or in other than the usual location.” Hmmm, I guess this applies to the nature of #rhizo15, and is perhaps the source of some of my uncertainty. We are a geographically diverse group, and some of us are jumping in here and there, without any particular objectives.

As for subjectives, the Merriam-Webster dictionary provided two definitions that caught my fancy: relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind; based on feelings or opinions rather than facts. There is no doubt that all of us can participate in the same experience, yet walk away with different perceptions, based on our values, experience, and overall mindset. And, whether we like to admit it or not, a lot of us reach conclusions on topics not based on rational, factual information, but rather based on, once again, our values, experience, and overall mindset. One of my subjectives, in #rhizo15, and in any learning experience, is to actually listen to others’ points of view, their experience, and their expertise.

Looking up the definition of rhizomatic led to other discoveries. Merriam-Webster informed me that it is of, relating to, or resembling a rhizome. I have always found definitions that use the root of the word you are looking up as part of the explanation more than a little annoying!

This exercise in dictionary skills did yield fruit, however, which is found in the comments below the definition of rhizomatic.

“’rhizomatic’ is mentioned in a text about the Internet, infrastructure, discrepancies in Internet access, penetration rates etc.”

“…the rhizomatic networks of power and information that typify contemporary globalization.”

“Rhizomatic Interconnections Between University and the Real World”

“The rhizomatic garden is also used as a metaphor for identity politics in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Edouard Glissant, but the historical discourses and practices that underlie gardening in Olive Senior’s poetry construct the metaphor as a far more ambivalent and conflicted process than even Deleuze acknowledges” [emphasis added].

These commenters understand that our increasingly (literally and figuratively) interconnected world is highly rhizomatic. The post-World War II structure we seem caught up in, whether it be related to commerce, politics, or education, no longer applies. Due to the mind-boggling rate of technological change, what is ahead of the curve today will be obsolete in a matter of years, if not months. All of our systems need to be adaptable and flexible, to be able to respond to the ever-changing environment.

Then, a literalist entered the conversation:

“What are you guys talking about? Rhizomatic is a term horticulturists use to describe certain plants ability to create a specialized stem, a rhizome, that grows underground and create ‘daughter plants’, allowing a plant to reproduce and spread.”

Isn’t that where we sometimes get stuck? In the concrete, understandable, don’t-rock-my-boat mindset. This is totally understandable. Humans don’t like change. Or do they? I find digital natives are totally comfortable with the new gadgets that arrive on the scene at a rapid rate. They are not at all afraid to play with them, and figure out how they work. Maybe more of our teaching and learning should be framed around this thought – let students figure things out. Give them the tools and guidance they need, offer them challenging questions and problems to solve, and watch them go!

Going back to gardening. At Sara’s Superb Herbs, I discovered:

“All mints are invasive… Never till mints because each stub will become another plant.”

Wouldn’t that be a great outcome of #rhizo15, that a whole bunch of new “plants” sprout up, and we all become enlarged by our experience?

Sara further explains:

“The word mint comes from Minthe, a Greek nymph who had the misfortune to be loved by Pluto. Persephone, not taking kindly to this infidelity, changed her into a lowly plant. But Pluto, taking pity on her, softened her plight by making her fragrant and even more aromatic when tread upon.”

I want to allow myself to be “tread upon” by my #rhizo15 colleagues, listening to them, learning from them, knowing that my professional aroma will benefit.

January 25

Mentor Texts

Inspired by Lauren Drew’s use of “Less Attitude. More Fitness.” as a #mentortext in the #writingthief #mooc Make Cycle 3: Mentor Scavenger Hunt, my mind veered to another well-known fitness slogan; Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Imagine my shock to discover the disquieting origins of this saying, which has been an upbeat, encouraging declaration in our cultural consciousness since 1988. This means students in our classrooms have heard it their whole lives. According to a 2009 New York Times article, “Just Do It” is a spin on “Let’s do it.” Those words were uttered in 1977 by Utah convicted killer Gary Gilmore just before he was executed by a firing squad. As reported in the article, a former Nike marketing chief  admits that “the origins of ‘Just Do It’ were not widely known or acknowledged.” Not surprising!

This discovery caused me to think deeper about words, phrases, slogans that are deeply embedded into our cultural fabric. How much do we understand about the origins and reasons we use those particular phrases?

The animated film Robots, released in 2005, is packed full of pop culture spoofs. It includes references to, among many others, Britney Spears, Star Wars, and Michael Jackson. Young children watching the movie at the same time I was were responding to the surface, slapstick humor. I found it to be hilarious because of the cultural references. The children missed that layer of humor, because those references were not (yet) part of their consciousness.

Isn’t that layering a common attribute in the most timeless texts? The comic series Calvin & Hobbes is a case in point. Young children can enjoy (and identify with!) the situations Calvin gets himself into beginning at a young age. As they grow older, they can explore those stories again and get a whole new level of understanding, not only of the plot, but the humor. Then, when they themselves become parents, they will understand Calvin’s parents better, and possibly show more sympathy for their plight!

These reflections impressed upon me how important it is to ask students to explore stories. Not just the surface level, but each layer. This investigation will vary, depending on the age of the students, but we can ask even young children whether they can name other stories that are similar to what we are reading to them. We can ask older students to think about possible influences that contributed to a writer’s storytelling. We can also guide them into drawing connections between past and present interpretations of common themes and characterizations.

In Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address to students at the University of the Arts,  he describes some of the steps of his journey into becoming a recognized writer. Gaiman is a brilliant writer and storyteller. Nonetheless, he has been a #writingthief of other writers, some apparent, others less so. He acknowledges influences as varied as  G.K Chesterton, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis.

My personal favorite of his books is American Gods. I love the way he weaves ancient mythical characters from several continents into a rich mythical tale of his own. In the process, he also creates a few new gods, to reflect current cultural preoccupations. Since I am a #lifelong #reader, I recognized many of the (renamed) characters in American Gods, and thoroughly enjoyed Gaiman’s representation of them. If I were less of a reader, I would have enjoyed the story, but I would have missed the richly textured layers he weaves into the plot.

Another excellent reason to inspire today’s young people to enjoy not only contemporary fiction, but to also reach back to stories told over the millennia, in order to build a rich understanding of who we are, and where we came from.



January 5


The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) graciously included me in their list of invitees to the currently-underway Writing Thief MOOC, a deep examination of Ruth Culham’s book The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing. As I explained in my introduction to the MOOC participants, I’m an outlier in the group, as I am not a formally trained writing teacher. My passion is project-based learning, which encompasses all disciplines, and which is itself an (albeit quickly growing) outlier in educational methodologies.

I had encountered a number of the Writing Thief MOOC leaders and participants during the summer 2014 Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC). I learned tremendously from that experience. I received an introduction to many technology tools available to incorporate into writing experiences (as well as other disciplines). I encountered other professionals’ views on teaching and learning. Perhaps most importantly, I discovered that interacting with this virtual community of similarly-minded people is good for my soul.

Therefore, I was eager to join the current conversation. Similarly to #CLMOOC, The Writing Thief MOOC consists of a number of “make cycles,” in this instance related to topics and themes contained in The Writing Thief.

In the second make cycle, we were asked to “find a quote (or quotes) from The Writing Thief that resonates with you,” then “[l]ook at it closely and dissect it” before letting the quote inspire our creativity. We were also told to “give yourself permission…” As I browsed through the “makes” that others had posted to the G+ community, I realized that I would not be satisfied to simply gussy up a quote and call it complete. I needed to give myself permission to dive deeper, and to have fun.

A word Culham used multiple times (nine, to be exact) in The Writing Thief is “frisson,” how we feel “frissons” as we and our students discover great mentor texts, and discover ideas we want to write about. I think my attention was caught by the word “frisson” both because it is not commonly used in English, and because, as a French speaker, the word was familiar to me.

So, the investigation began. One of the beauties of e-readers is they make it straightforward to search for words and phrases. Once I had found all nine “frissons,” I needed to decide how to present my reflection about them. I chose the tool Haiku Deck, both because I had some experience using it, and because it was well-suited to my purpose.

Initially, I thought arranging the nine quotes into a “deck” would be easy. Ha! I had to create an introduction, so off to take photos of the definition of frisson from both French and English dictionaries. Oh, wait, the first quote needed a preamble. Then, some of the quotes didn’t want to fit anywhere. I arranged and rearranged them several times, attempting to find a narrative flow. Finally, I got stuck trying to figure out how to conclude the presentation. Not to mention choosing the images that best portrayed the sense I wanted to give to each quote. As I was working, I realized this was the same process that any writer encounters as s/he creates a piece of work. Although I was simply remixing (thieving?) words written by someone else, I was nonetheless seeking to tell a coherent story. After all, that is what humans like to do – tell stories.

My finished story may be found here: