Monthly Archives: July 2013

Learning Walk: a Photo Essay

I made time for a learning walk this morning, just a 30 minute or so ramble up the paths around this conference center in the woods.  For me a learning walk is a quiet introspective time for noticing the world around me.  I find that in addition to looking for interesting images to capture with my iPhone, I am more attuned to sounds during a learning walk.  This morning’s walk in the warm, but not too warm sun of Westchester, New York was accompanied by a symphony of birds as they called to one another and flitted through the leaves and branches of the plentiful trees.  The backbeat percussion was provided by the hum of cicadas.  Occasional scurrying sounds suggested that I was not alone on my walk.


As I headed up the hill I noticed this rustic chimney on a building along side the path.  I went around the other side hoping to find a beautiful old building, but really, the chimney was the outstanding feature.  I noticed a sign pointing the direction of the tree house.  A tree house?  I was intrigued and continued my walk.

tree house

This isn’t my definition of a tree house.  Looks more like a conference building near trees–not stunning or particularly interesting.  But…I took a few minutes to sit on a picnic bench and attach my macro lens to my phone and then set off to explore some of the plant life.



I love the texture of this thistly plant…and its spiky stem and leaves.  But this week is orange in my photo-a-day challenge, so while I was drawn to this beautiful purplish-pink I continued to look for examples of orange.

orange berries

berry with orange

I discovered that these berries that I had seen as red, had a stage where orange was prominent.  And I love the hint of orange highlights on this berry!

As I looped around the tree house to head back I noticed some other buildings and happened on this interesting little building…with a rusty orange stovepipe!

rusty pipe

I backtracked the way I had come, noticing things I had missed on my way up.  A tree stump with a hole.  I wonder what might live in there?

tree hole

I also wondered if there were storms here in the winter.  These roots from a very large tree are facing up instead of anchoring the tree in the ground.


I came across this clearing…a surprise opening in the otherwise moderately dense woods.  I wonder why this space is open?  Does it have a use?  Is it a pasture of some sort?  It looks freshly mowed.

open field

I returned to the conference center with lots of interesting things to think about.  I love taking the time to notice and wonder.  It’s a great way to explore a new place and also to allow for re-seeing someplace you already know.  For me, the photography aspect keeps me from turning my learning walk into a work-out, speeding by without taking the time to stop and notice something that catches my eye…or ear.  I saw so much more than I captured with my camera…the elegant white moths that fluttered around the plants, the way the sky looked through the trees, the tiny white flowers that were enough off the path that I didn’t venture through the brush in my flip flops.

I want to provide time for my students to take some learning walks this year.  We might take our ipads and do some photography.  Or we might take our sketch pads and stop to capture our noticings that way.  We might even head out with our writer’s notebooks.  Whichever tool we choose, the important part of the process is taking the time to notice…and then taking the time to think and reflect to make sense of the experience once we return.  I hope to share some of our class learning walks when school starts in the fall.

I invite you to try a learning walk.  I’d love to know what you notice and learn along the way.

A Small Orange Bead

I’m in New York doing some National Writing Project work at a conference center owned by the Girl Scouts of America.  Girl Scout memorabilia and history are prominently displayed and there will even be a s’mores reception tomorrow evening!  Girl Scouts and scouting generally brings to mind merit badges and good deeds–organizations that encourage appreciation of the outdoors as well as effective stewardship of the home and community.  Many women I meet remember their days as Brownies or Girl Scouts with fondness…and who doesn’t anxiously await the annual Girl Scout cookie sale?  Ummm…thin mints!

I wasn’t a Girl Scout.  I was a Camp Fire Girl.  And other than those in my community and my mother who was also a Camp Fire Girl, I seldom run across others who participated in Camp Fire Girls.  It doesn’t have the iconic imagery of scouting or the name recognition, although it still exists today as Camp Fire USA, a co-ed organization.  But somehow, in my group of NWP colleagues we discovered a common bond–several of us were Camp Fire Girls!  This led to reminiscences of our WoHeLo days and the inevitable progression to our collection of beads and how they were sewn (or not) on our ceremonial vests.

So this morning Judy gave me a gift.  She pulls a piece of paper and a small baggie out of her purse and hand me the paper and a small orange bead–a Camp Fire Girl honor bead.


Judy and I also spent some time this morning, in the course of our work, talking about play and its value in the learning process–and all the ways it has been pushed out of schools and classrooms.  So what does this have to do with Camp Fire Girls, you might ask?  Isn’t it an out-of-school organization?  It is–and there is still a connection in my way of thinking!  My memories of Camp Fire Girls were of sewing, craft projects, field trips, camping trips, cooking out of tin cans, and selling those butter toffee peanuts–we helped each other when we got stuck, when we needed a next bit of information, or someone to show us how.  I remember talking and laughing with my friends as we did these things, and I still remember how to do things that I learned in this context.

In my classroom I want this same kind of playfulness and collaboration among my students as they learn.  I want them to make meaning from their activity, from useful approximations that are revised and reshaped through iteration after interation–not required “drafts” from teachers, but student-generated improvements that clarify thinking and move closer to the intended end point determined by the students themselves based on their audience and purpose.  I want this in classrooms because organizations like the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire USA are not accessible to everyone–and all our kids go to school (or nearly all).  I want playfulness and collaboration to be educational values that are practiced in our public schools as a means of becoming literate, thoughtful, problem posing, and problem solving learners.

I think I’ll find a special place for this small orange bead to remind me that we all need places to play and explore as we learn.

Can We Crowdsource Equity?

I’ve been thinking about photography and the power of images to influence perceptions…and to change actions.  Litterati came to my attention earlier this month–a movement that encourages people to photograph litter they find, clean the litter up, and post the photo on social media with the hashtag #litterati.  I love the idea!  And I also love the way that so many of the photographs that people post are so beautiful!  My friend Janis took this amazing photo of an abandoned yellow bucket…and some others including one of a Starbucks cup today on the ground nestled in some orange tulip tree blossoms.  As I admire the beauty of her photography, I also think about the impact of the trash and I become more aware of the trash around me.

And then Mia over at the  #clmooc posted this video about the Landfill Harmonic where a music teacher, a garbage picker, and children from a Paraguayan slum make musical instruments from trash in the landfill, and then work to create a better life for the children who  play beautiful music on these instruments.

This morning a tweet about a TED talk caught my eye.  The Silent Drama of Photography.

I listened to Sebastiao Salgado to tell his story about his obsession with photography as he captured the devastation of war and death and destruction–to the point where doctors told him that his photography was killing him.  He turned away from photography and returned to Brazil, his homeland, and decided to work to restore the rainforest that was lost to human encroachment by planting native trees and plants–and giving his family’s ranch to the country as a nature preserve.  Through this work he found his love of photography again and changed his focus from photographing humans to photographing nature, capturing the beauty of the land reclaimed.

I find myself considering the question Janis asks in her post about the abandoned yellow bucket…how can we, as educators and those who care about the education of our young people, use photos to bring attention to the “litter” in education–all those practices that stamp out the passion for learning and treat students as cogs in a learning machine–to allow spaces for creativity, critical thinking, and pure joy of learning?  To allow all students this access, regardless of socioeconomic status, skin color, language background, and test scores.  Can we use photography as a way to crowdsource awareness towards equity in education?

Dandelions: A Photo Essay

Dandelions fascinate me.  These pesky plants, often referred to as weeds, are hearty, resilient, and strong and at the same time delicate, graceful, and intricate.  During the winter I had the chance to watch a dandelion transform through its growth phases.  It somehow ended up thriving in an abandoned planter in my front yard—one of those spaces where I always have plans to have something beautiful grow—but lack of consistent watering and attention seem to spell doom for whatever I purposely plant there.  We’d about given up on the planter, planning to relegate it to the back yard where it wouldn’t be such an eyesore—its been just a planter of dirt for some time–when I noticed a dandelion flower blooming bright and yellow seemingly oblivious to the neglect of this newfound home.  I grabbed my macro lens for my iphone and worked to capture that sunny globe.


Each day as I arrived home from work, before the daylight had dimmed, I noticed another phase of the dandelion’s life and attempted to capture it with my macro lens.  I love the way the macro forces me to slow my breathing, lean in close, and look carefully.  Steadiness is paramount to a successful photo—and I find myself angling the lens this way and that as I work to achieve the optimal focus on some aspect of my subject.


As the dandelion turned from yellow flower to white fluffball, I realize how little thought I had really given to these two very different versions of the same plant.  Like so many people I had played with these “weeds” as a child, picking these little fluffballs and blowing while I made wishes, never considering that I was in fact helping their cause as those pieces of fluff, each with a seed, attaches floated to a new home.


I got closer still and worked to capture what happened day by day as the dandelion naturally progressed.  And that’s when my view of dandelions was forever transformed.


I became obsessed with taking pictures of dandelions…in all their states.  And I began seeing what had once been ordinary in new and extraordinary ways.


Instead of my “go about my business without paying too much attention to the little things” stance, I suddenly had a caterpillar’s eye view, which opened up new ways of seeing.


So my takeaway…look closely and pay attention to the ordinary, searching for the hidden beauty.  I feel like that’s also a lesson to heed even without my iphone in my hand.  In my classroom and in my work with teachers I also need to search for the hidden beauty masked by the ordinary–that’s where the treasures lie.  What treasures are hiding from you?

Spaces for Learning

Over at the Connected Learning MOOC on Google+, Terry posted this article by Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post about the struggles dedicated teachers face in our current climate.  He also invited us to respond…in a crowdsourced way.  Here’s my contribution:

I’ve just spent the past month with twenty educators passionate about improving their teaching and the learning experience of their students.  During this time they’ve read extensively, discussed and debated ideas and practices, demonstrated a practice from their own teaching setting in front of these peers, written and responded to writing—personal and professional pieces, all creative—and laughed and cried, dealt with worry and nerves, and invested countless hours because THEY want to be the best educators they can be.  Their districts and schools didn’t send them or pay for them—they came because they chose this experience.

Many #si13 discussions take place on these #orange chairs and cubes.

Many #si13 discussions take place on these #orange chairs and cubes.

These “third spaces” like writing projects, the CLMOOC, and Twitter have become more and more necessary for educators to thrive in our challenging profession.  These are the spaces where teachers experiment, innovate, and most importantly, find support when they feel that our educational system isn’t working for them or for their students.  In the face of daunting constraints, teachers like the ones participating in the SDAWP Summer Institute and those making like crazy in the CLMOOC continue to seek out practices that support learners and celebrate the joy and purposes of learning.  In these spaces we make sense of our world, we build relationships, we blaze trails for learning for those that feel pinched by constant test prep and narrowing curricula and in doing so we stay the course.  Because like Valerie said,

But some teachers are fighting these trends. Teachers believe that education is not just teaching students to pass tests. They believe that education is not just about how to make a living, but also about how to make a life. They believe that school should be a place of joy in learning, not learning in fear. They believe that play, imagination, and creativity have a place in school, just as much as mastering difficult material. In fact, play and mastery go hand in hand. And these teachers are fighting to work harder than ever so they can continue to find ways to be creative in the classroom despite the pressure not to be. These teachers have classrooms you’d love to have your child in.

What kind of classroom or learning spaces do you want for your child, for your students, for yourself?  I’d love to hear about your “third spaces” or alternative ways of dealing with the constraints that are strangling the love of learning and passion for teaching.

Connected Learning…a Challenge

At the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) we are always looking for ways to learn from each and ways to support each others’ learning in our mission to improve writing instruction for the young people in our area.  For a while now we’ve been wanting to create a shared resource of mentor texts that teachers love and have used successfully to teach writing in their classrooms.  We’ve thrown a bunch of ideas around about how to do that–and nothing has really stuck.

Enter Barb–SDAWP Teacher Consultant and one of the administrators of our SDAWP Voices blog, the collaborative blog we’ve been experimenting with over the last year.  In another part of her life she is an artist with fabric–creating beautiful quilt projects–and maintains a sewing focused blog where she also participates in challenges and contests and blog link-ups.  Sharing her experience with textile artists and their social media world is helping us at the SDAWP experiment with new ways to build connections…and learning experiences.

So starting today we’re asking people–everyone is invited–to commit to the 113 Mentor Texts by the End of 2013 challenge.  Committing means agreeing to add at least one mentor text that you’ve used to teach writing or used to support your own writing that you would recommend to others.  There are lots more details on the SDAWP Voices blog here.

So join us…and please share with your friends and colleagues so we can reach our goal of 113 mentor texts by the end of 2013!

Whose Voice? A Soundscape Ecology

A tweet crossed my feed this morning with the following message:

When a person dominates an event, the group shows less intelligence. #ADE13

Just those few characters in a tweet already had me thinking about voices…those that get heard and those that don’t.

And then I came across this TED talk by Bernie Krause talking about his study of wild soundscapes.  He introduced me to three new terms to understand his research:

1.  Geophony–the non biologic sounds in an environment like wind and water

2.  Biophony–sounds that living organisms make (not focused on the individual, but the sounds you hear all at the same time)

3.  Anthrophony–human sounds like airplanes, cars (things we think of as noise) or even music that is soothing or aesthetically pleasing

Bernie goes on to explain that the soundscape ecology can give us a great deal of information about the health of a habitat.  His point is that our eyes don’t give us all the information we need to assess the world.  Sometimes our ears can tell us things that our eyes cannot see.

Careful listening is also important in the classroom.  And I think, like Bernie, we need to listen to what sounds we hear…and what sounds are missing from our classroom soundscape.  The classroom soundscape includes the obvious sources: teachers and students.  We need to listen to not only who speaks, but also to what kind of speaking is going on.  Does the teacher dominate the talk time?  (Yes, instructional speech counts!)  What about the students?  Who talks?  Is the speech competitive or collaborative?  What role does silence play?  And what can we as adults do to shift the soundscape ecology?

What does it say about the group’s intelligence when some voices dominate?

What do you think?

Reflections on Yellow

I love focusing on a single theme all week long with my photography.  Instead of feeling limited, I find myself not only looking for ways to capture my “word,” I also find myself searching for new ways to frame my shots to create interesting and different photos.

One of my favorites this week is this picture of the variegated hibiscus (orange with yellow at the center) with the flamingos slightly out of focus in the background.  I was intentional at including the flamingos and was working for a crisp focus on the flower.  I’m pretty happy about the result.

hibiscus with flamingos

I worked hard to avoid yellow as road signs and street markings (once I got past the fire hydrant) this week.  Yellow was more challenging as a photographic topic than red.  Here’s a snippet of the entire week:

yellow collage

It is so much fun to see what other people participating in this photo-a-day challenge come up with!  There are some gorgeous yellow pictures out there this week.  I love that Janis’s (@janisselbyjones) yellow “abandoned bucket” was featured on the Litterati Facebook page this week!

Looking forward to orange!  We’d love you to join us, check out the challenge here.

Boys and Bears

Today was a perfect July day at the zoo, sunny and warm with gently ocean breezes to keep things tolerable.  The animals were active and playful.  We watched the polar bears frolic in the cool water of their enclosure—so close you could almost touch them through the clear Plexiglas barrier.


I watched the animals, thinking about how the zoo personnel was careful to point out the ways they put the animals’ well being and health ahead of the visitors’ desires to take the perfect picture and get that close-up look.  I heard a similar message from the tour bus driver, the panda keeper, and the sea lion show trainer: these are wild animals, they are in this zoo so we can learn to take better care of them to ensure their continued existence.  The zoo is a place for learning.

I also did a lot of kid watching today.  And while there were usual instances of whining and demanding, there were also many kids fascinated and engaged watching the animals.  I observed some little boys near the polar bears for quite a while.  They stayed right up next to the glass where a polar bear was enjoying chewing on a bone right on the other side.  As the bear dunked under the water against the glass, the boys would run their hands against their side of the glass as though they were petting the bear.  As the bear emerged from the water, the boys reached their faces up alongside the bear’s.  A crowd formed with many adults attempting to get a close-up portrait of that bear—or line their own child alongside the bear for that illusion photo of their child with the bear.  You could feel and hear the frustration of those adults, wanting the kids to move out of the way.  After ten minutes or so, the parents of the boys seemed to catch on to the frustration of the crowd and urged the boys away from the glass so others could have a turn.

I understand the frustration of the adults waiting for the boys to move away.  And I understand the boys’ fascination with the bears.  I find myself thinking about how their physical interaction supported their appreciation of the bears…and how that may impact their future actions in the world.  If they had to stand back and watch quietly from afar, would they still find polar bears interesting and want to know more about them?  I’m also fascinated by the physical structure of the zoo and how that structure creates intimacy and relationships with the animals.

How can I think more carefully about the structures in my classroom to invite engagement and interaction rather than passive compliance?  Zoos and classrooms—I have a lot to think about!

Writing, Learning, and Time

Time is one of those precious commodities that we never seem to have enough of.  There are so many demands on our time—work and family, the business of maintaining homes and cars and health and beauty.  And then there are all those things we want to do: play and make and explore and learn.

We’re often impatient, wanting to see the fruits of our labor immediately, especially as teachers.  We want to see our students grasp new concepts and show us they are learning.  We often forget that learning is not fast and often follows a zig-zaggy trajectory rather than that even slope of progression that seems to be the meme for learning.

Yesterday, Judy shared this short, eloquent piece from Ralph Fletcher in his book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses, who writes about his experience spending a day with eighty-year-old doctor.

We worked together planting baby trees in New Hampshire.  The saplings were little bitty things, no more than six or eight inches tall.

“It’ll take twenty years before they’re even close to maturity,” he admitted with a wry smile.  “Guess I won’t be around to see it.”

I was struck by the quiet heroism of this act, planting trees that would never bring him shade.  As writing teachers, we do the same thing.  It won’t happen today.  It may not even happen this year, or next.  But you can count on it: one day our young writers will blossom, even if we’re not there when it happens.  Except I actually think we will be there, buried deep inside them.

I think this is true—when we are being the best teachers we can with student learning at the center of our practice—but I also think that some of our young writers “die on the vine” at school, from lack of water, sun, and nutrients necessary for growth.

And I’m also remembering my beautiful lavender plant from my front yard that got relegated to the wilds of the backyard during our early spring plumbing disaster—a place where “out of sight, out of mind” meant a lack of watering and near death.  And yet, we didn’t discard it, assume that it had died.  Instead…as we became more mindful and intentional about caring for it and nurturing it (and with strategic placement where it gets some water from the automatic lawn sprinklers), it is beginning to come back.


We can do that for our students too.  Instead of feeling bad for not being the best possible teacher for the students who came before, we can work to nurture the learners we have before us.  We can keep learning ourselves and share that learning with these young people in our care.  Time will always be a challenge…for fitting in our own learning and for uncovering evidence of our students’ learning.

And then I think of myself as a writer.  How often do the demands of work and life suck up time necessary for writing and thinking and dreaming…the lifeblood of composition.  I’m working to find ways to be more intentional about my writing life; creating strategic ways to find spaces for writing and thinking and dreaming.

What do you do to nurture the young writers in your life?  How do you nurture your own writerly life?