Monthly Archives: July 2013

Does Design Matter? A Terminal Walk

A week or so ago Bart over at the #clmooc shared this blog post about classroom design and it’s impact on teaching and learning.  Yesterday I spent the day traveling from New York back home to San Diego and in the process spent time in three airport terminals.

Since I had a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I took the opportunity to take a short learning walk to give myself the opportunity to think about my experience through the photographs I took.

Airports are funny places.  Institutional, highly regulated, and not terribly comfortable.  The food is pricy—and not usually all that good, the restrooms are not as strategic as we would wish, and there are never enough plugs to recharge those electronics that are so necessary these days.  And yet, as travelers we spend significant time in these places.

As I walked through the terminal I noticed the usual features—the Starbucks, the strategically placed trashcans, and the lettered and numbered gates.

And then I looked up.  I noticed the green glass (or plastic or Plexiglas) on the ceiling.  In some places the same design was yellow and others more of a tan color.


Down the main corridor looking up meant seeing flags from countries all over the work—and a world sculpture all under the latticed ceiling that lets natural light into the terminal.


I saw plenty of vehicles of the golf cart variety.  Some were moving with flashing lights and beeping noises as they transported travelers who needed some extra help getting from gate to gate.  I also found a place where three vehicles were parked…and loved watching the little boy “driving” the one with the awning.


The chairs designated for those with physical handicaps were red in this terminal.  I did notice right away that they were different from the other chairs.


I also noticed some new, more unusual design features.  There were the walls of plants on either side of a bank of chairs facing the windows.  A closer look revealed that they hold potted plants arranged to fill both sides and the top so it looked much like a shrub.  I also saw the interactive big screen game…challenging those who pass by to try to beat the latest fastest time.

plant wall


These last two features remind me a bit of a hamster cage with the wheel for exercise or a fish bowl with the castle to make the glass bowl seem like an undersea world.  They are still containers meant to keep the pets both healthy and restricted, but probably serve the pet owner more than the animal they hold.  The plant wall and the interactive game don’t change the terminal experience, people are still contained inside the terminal building–and often experience boredom associated with waiting and waiting…

These props seem almost like bean bags in the classroom for reading.  They make things a bit more comfortable, but don’t fundamentally change the experience of the space.  Bart talked about the workbenches he wanted for his classroom–to shift the experience for learners from recipients of knowledge to makers as learners.

I’m thinking about the ways the design of spaces impact our actions, our feelings, our experiences.  What are the implications for classrooms?  For airport terminals?  For living and learning?


Like tiny fireworks, sparks of light danced along the pathway as I took an evening walk the other day.  Fireflies!

If you’re from the Midwest, you’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal?  We have fireflies every summer.”  But for a southern California native—a place where we don’t have fireflies, the opportunity to enjoy this natural spectacle is magical.

I’ve heard all the stories of childhood firefly wonders.  And the affection that those who know fireflies have for these gentle, easy to catch insects.  I was surprised when I first saw them up-close, they aren’t so magical or elegant when they aren’t glowing.  They are more of the sturdy, ordinary bug variety.  But when they do their thing…I am mesmerized!

I love the way something so seemingly ordinary can also be magical.  I think of my students that way too.  It’s easy to clump students together in categories.  There are the ones who are slow to start, there’s the ones who race through every task without much thought or care, there are those who spend their time in their own daydreams, and those that never stop moving.

But watch carefully, create spaces for inquiry and imagination and play, and we all might just see those sparks of light…that magical natural spectacle…learning!

Breaking Through #Orange

I love the challenge of taking and posting a photo every day.  I could just take a picture, but the daily/weekly prompts push me to reframe and rethink what I choose to photograph.  This month’s challenge–a different color every week–has posed some new considerations for my photography.  Red and yellow pushed at my choices and had me thinking about and looking for ways to highlight those colors photographically.  I was still finding interesting scenes and objects…at least one each day that “fit” in the color frame for me.  This past week was orange and I began to feel that the task was hard.  I could find orange–but it seemed so ordinary and overdone–caution cones, warning signs, and flowers.  So I photographed a mural, those ever-present cones, some orange furniture, and made a mural collage.


But my photos were feeling boring–I wasn’t inspired.  Apparently, somewhere in the process of spending a week focused on a color I had raised the photography bar for myself.  I wanted interesting, provocative, artistic shots–and they still needed an orange focus.  The orange umbrellas from Friday were a bit better–I like the framing of the shot.


On Saturday serendipity struck and I was given a small orange bead that became the focus for both my photo and a blog post.


And then on Sunday (the last day of orange) I had a breakthrough of sorts.  My learning walk gave me the time, space, and focus to tune into the orange around me in interesting ways.  I ended up posting these three:


berry with orange


And there were a few others that I haven’t posted yet.

So today begins green.  I like taking the opportunity to reflect on the week of photos and think about my growth as a photographer and my thinking about how the constraints of the photo-a-day challenge (self-imposed) support and/or interfere with my creativity.  What am I missing when I focus on a theme or prompt?  What do I gain when I force myself to “see” through a constrained lens?

I’d love to know what you think!

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?