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.



April 25


I am in the midst of my third MOOC. At the time I registered for #DLMOOC, I had already registered for History of the Slave South, offered through Coursera. My current foray is into Design Thinking, offered by Iversity.

The three courses are highly divergent in their content, presentation, and instructor-student interaction. As I reflect on my reaction to the various courses, I am trying to determine how and why I feel differently about them.

History of the Slave South is a modified version of a University of Pennsylvania course, presented by Professor Stephanie McCurry. It was the most traditional of the three courses. There was a syllabus, with precise deadlines (for those who wanted to receive a certificate of completion). There were lectures to watch (with short quizzes integrated), readings (mostly primary source materials), and weekly online discussions on a specific topic.

There were also five writing assignments over the ten weeks, which required careful analysis and synthesis of course content. In addition to writing, each student was required to peer review other students’ work, and evaluate their own work. The review process was structured; there were particular aspects of the writing that were evaluated (e.g. “what is the writer’s thesis?”).

Some students complained loudly about the peer review process, declaring that it was too much work. I thought it was a great aspect of the course, as I learned something from each of my peer’s commentaries on my work. I also learned from my peers’ analysis of the same materials I had read, given their insights were typically somewhat different than mine.

I thoroughly enjoyed History of the Slave South, as Professor McCurry is a knowledgeable and articulate lecturer, and the topics we covered were fascinating. The online discussions were lively, although I followed few of the thousands of posts. I also found it interesting to gain the perspectives of students living outside of the United States, of which there we many. This course fed my intellectual self.

DLMOOC was presented in a dramatically different fashion. Each week, there were a number of “readings,” although some of those were actually video presentations. There were online discussions through G+. Online panel discussions were scheduled once or twice a week, which could be “attended,” or watched later, in the archived course materials. Optional assignments were also defined, some of which I did, others I did not.

Early on, a variety of sub-groups formed, based on specific interests. The discussions that developed in these groups were free-form, with abundant sharing of information and ideas. Due to participating in some of these groups, I have expanded my #PLN, since several participants have expertise that will help me grow professionally.

The facilitators’ attitude, which they announced periodically throughout the course, was that participants were free to come and go as they wished, with no obligations, and no guilt. My personality being what it is, I couldn’t be so laissez-faire in my participation, but I certainly had weeks when I was “behind,” and times when I only gave cursory attention to the materials.

One of the (optional) assignments each week was to tweet about a particular topic. I thought this was clever; a simple, effective way to raise awareness in the Twitter world that DLMOOC was happening, and to give a glimpse into some of the topics we were exploring.

I derived a great deal of knowledge and enjoyment from DLMOOC. The formal presentations, and the less formal discussions, added to my existing knowledge related to PBL, and many other topics in education. The free-flowing format encouraged participants to share, including articles, experience, links to resources, etc. The fact the course materials and discussions are archived indefinitely adds to the appeal – I can return at any time to deepen my understanding. This course fed my professional self.

I’m in the throes of Design Thinking, and am struggling to enjoy this MOOC. The format of the course is short lectures, many of which are followed by short quizzes. For each lecture, there is also a discussion question. Most of the lessons also include additional (optional) reading material.

As I reflect, I think there are two major reasons for my discontent. The first is that the concepts that have been presented so far are ones I already know something about, so minimal #deeperlearning is happening. I am bored.

The second reason is that the discussions seem relatively shallow, and often esoteric. Maybe that is what causes me the most discomfort – although I greatly enjoy intellectual discussions, endless navel-gazing does not excite me. So, this course and I may not be a good fit. Nonetheless, I will finish it, because giving up is bad form, both for my sense of self, and in my role of modeling #lifelonglearning to the  students I interact with. This course is not feeding my artistic self.

As I reflect on what I liked and did not like, I wonder how today’s young students would react to these courses. I find I need to constantly put myself into their shoes, to remind myself how different their reality is from mine. Their world has always had the Internet. Living without some sort of hand-held technology device (smartphone, iPod, tablet…) is inconceivable to them. These are two glaring differences between their childhood and mine, but there are many others. This reality provides a good argument as to why we should include students in the planning process. We need to invite them to discuss with us what and how they think they should learn!