Continuing to Re-Learn

Lisa Genova wrote the movie, Still Alice, several years ago. In her recent TED talk called “What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she concludes that continuing to learn throughout life seems to be very important in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense intuitively as well because if I am always learning, I stay fresh and current…like a constantly sharpened pencil never getting dull.

For me, though, it’s more like learn, learn, forget, re-learn, re-learn.

Another short, four-day writing camp ends and I have learned many things — I hope the students came away with something, too. For at least ten summers, I have taught teens in the summer at the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Spartan Writing Camps. For years, I led a camp called “Digital Writing,” but more recently I have been widening the focus to “Creative Writing.” I like the flexibility that such a class affords and often I include some digital writing as part of the camp.

One techie thing I re-learned was how fun and useful Storybird can be. It’s a great tool for sharing longform stories, picture books, and poems. I also was reminded that their notion of a poem is something you create with the words they provide (like refrigerator magnets); choose “picture book” to share a previously written poem and you can add photos to go along with the poem. And who did I learn all of this from? A teen named Elaina. Seeing her enthusiasm for the website, I asked her to teach the camp about it with a 10 minute introduction. She jumped right up and did an amazing job. Five more students were using it in minutes and ended up presenting their final project with it. This bright 13 year old even inspired me to create the following haiku on Storybird.

On the last day of camp, I was able to get Lansing’s new Poet Laureate, Dennis Hinrichsen, to visit our camp. That simple act re-taught me a couple things to start: it doesn’t hurt to ask and even relatively short notice is sometimes enough notice. Dennis did a marvelous job explaining the context of a couple poems and reading them. He answered students’ questions for quite awhile and in a very genuine, personable manner.

At the end of his talk, Dennis said he was willing to work with someone on their draft in front of the group. None of the 35 students or two other teachers took him up on his offer. So, I went to the computer, found two of my pieces of poetry, and was reminded of that exciting, queasy feeling called risk. He spent over 20 minutes workshoping them (for free) and both poems were markedly better. I enjoyed watching him talk through his suggestions and questions, while engaging and challenging the students.

NOTE: Dennis would like to talk about poetry in classrooms around the tri-county area in the fall. If you are a K-12 teacher in the Lansing area, shoot him an email at I highly recommend him for his rapport with young people and his insights into poetry.

I also learned what it means to power through. I had surgery to remove a benign growth on my parotid gland (near my right ear) on the Wednesday before the Monday camp began. My four days to recover were shortened since I needed to stay overnight in the hospital due to the mass being infected and surgery lasting five hours (instead of 2-3 as expected). I also had an extra trip to the ER on Sunday due to inflammation and swelling. All of which is to say that I was in less-than-favorable condition to lead 11 sixth-eighth graders in much of anything.

Here’s what I looked like when I came home from the hospital

The stitch started at the top-front section in front of my ear, went under and behind my ear, and then petered out on my neck. I’m not sure if I grew my beard so I wouldn’t have to shave or to hide the gruesomeness of it all.

I, of course, used the surgery as an example of taking life and turning it into creative writing: “What if instead of just taking out the growth, they put in a tracker or made me bionic in some way?” That inspired at least one story. Fortunately, I had wonderfully creative and cooperative 6th-8th graders. They jumped on everything on the camp agenda and cut me some slack when I needed to relax a bit. When you throw in that it didn’t rain, we all got ice cream, and they actually pay me to lead the camp, leading this camp felt like a success (thanks to regular pain meds and a bunch of antibiotics).

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Hannah Schulte. She pinch hit for me on Tuesday morning when I had a doctor’s appointment. She’s a recent, Spartan graduate looking for a teaching job. She was in my class regularly a couple years ago and I was very impressed. May the Force be with her.

Keep Working

You may have thought I was going to talk about regret — about how I wish I had kept working…and so you should keep teaching or whatever it is you’re doing.

Not so much.

What I have on my mind these days is how we need to keep working on what’s important to us. I’ve had a nice run being a preschool teacher’s aide on and off for the past few months. Every interaction with a young person makes my soul sing. And I am working a bit at Schuler Books (Eastwood) and it’s quite gratifying to work alongside former students of mine who love books too; I think I’m a closet librarian because I love helping people find what they are looking for in a library/bookstore. Even shelving books alphabetically gives me an odd, wonderful sense of accomplishment.

While some friends of mine may be thinking that I could have, should have taught for a few more years, I offer that I’m still teaching and using my abilities daily. I’ve been amazed at how many opportunities pop up. In the coming months, I will be working with ASPPIRE of Mid-Michigan as a job coach. This organization supports adults on the Autism spectrum in social and work situations. I attended a job coach training recently that felt like a perfect reminder of my time as a Special Education teacher, the unit I taught on Careers, and the importance of making learning practical. Utility. How can I use what you are teaching me in my life? Students of all ages care about those things.

Another aspect of my teaching career that’s in full swing is my association with the National Writing Project. I hope to keep working with both the national and local (Red Cedar Writing Project) chapters for years. Recently, I’ve led in-services on Letters to the Next President, 2.0. This program is also focused on authentic audiences for student learning; not only the actual next President, but other students around the country. The rich conversations around issues of importance to students can be rewarding to read. Students care so much more about the message they are sending when the audience is enlarged. I’m on a team of teachers creating curriculum for another national program called Youth Voices where students can communicate and collaborate with teens around the country. We are using a beta site called LRNG that is testing my ‘new learning’ skills just like all the new jobs I’m going through training for. What I’m working on is using my skills and developing more skills in a more flexible manner.

Here’s a blog flashback…

So, I’m still dealing with the joys and frustrations of teaching and continuing to learn and teach. I continue to present at conferences as I have in the past and learn at conferences, too (I plan to go to Atlanta next month for the National Writing Project annual conference). I even am putting books in people’s hands these days, albeit one at a time with family and friends. Finally, I know there is even more important work to do regarding overcoming racial biases and I’m helping organize a men’s retreat at our church on the topic.

Last week, I was awarded the Middle School English Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Council of Teachers of English. I am humbled and excited by the honor. And part of me felt, at first, like I didn’t deserve it since I’m not teaching in a public school right now. I don’t know if I deserved it or not, but I’ve taught 25 years and it was a joy and an honor. And I’m still working…and teaching. And I like it. I hope you are enjoying your journey, too. Peace.

Bonus blog entry…..

P.S. Congrats to Bob Dylan for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dylan singing Mr. Tambourine Man in 1964 (introduced by Pete Seeger)

The amazing Joe Henry’s thoughts from his Facebook page:

“it may be stunning to some, imagining that a songwriter coming out of the folk tradition might receive a nobel prize –and for literature, of all things. but in truth, nothing in our collective culture speaks with more subversive authority than do songs; nothing so scrolls in subtitle to our shadow-life with more illumination; nothing moves as so much weather upon the day, both lifting our sails and powering their aim in ways unseen and essential.

through centuries, and until not so very long ago –within my adult lifetime– songs have stood in fact as our most commonly shared social media: it has been by song that revolutions of every manner are borne aloft and passed wide, that mythologies are ratified not as half- or untruths, but as key and legend to our fading, fraying maps of identity; where love is professed to be both earth and blood to our progress –its mystery given shape and dimension, even as it shifts us wildly upon our axis.

“jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule,” the young man offered, and so we go on: with the treasure of our expanding vision; with gratitude.”
If you want to borrow my copy of his memoir, Chronicles, email me ( I also have his complete lyrics if you want to read them; one of my favorite lines from one of his songs is from “Tombstone Blues”…
“…saying ‘The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken.'” On a car ride years ago, Aaron and I played that song over and over to hear that play on words.

Thinking about Bob Dylan isn’t complete with sharing Weird Al’s “Bob” palindrome-play song. Imitation is definitely the highest form of flattery.

Books by and about Bob Dylan

A Virtual Journey with Real People

Every time Troy Hicks suggests I try something new, I hesitate briefly. For over 10 years, he has been nudging me forcefully out of my comfort zone. My instincts make me consider and re-consider the work that will go into the next “opportunity,” but ultimately I just trust the guy. I find myself saying “yes” to Troy most of the time because the pay-offs have far exceeded my expectations over the years. And so it was with agreeing to be a facilitator at the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing (4T means Teachers Teaching Teachers about Technology).

Through some emails with Delia Decourcey of Oakland Schools, I learned what signing onto this project entailed:
“The commitment for professional learning is 5 Virtual Sessions between August 3 and October 2, plus 2 hours of additional virtual work/collaboration time for session facilitators and moderators.
Dates and times of sessions:
Session 1 – Thursday, August 6 from 10am-12pm
Session 2 – Thursday, August 13 from 10am-1pm
Session 3 – Tuesday, August 18 from 10am-1pm
Session 4 – flexible scheduling for talk through start-stop of webinar (90 min)
Session 5 – Saturday, October 3 from 10am-12:30pm
Present one hour webinar at the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing on Oct 11-14”

For this investment of time, I would receive $300 and 14 free SCECH hours. I would be learning a new skill, practicing the skill, getting coaching to improve, and getting paid to do it all. The time commitment listed above does not include the hours I would put into creating the webinar, of course. As it turned out, however, this was just the opportunity I was looking for, so I jumped on board.

I had been on a webinar panel before, but never led one myself. I had also written on a blackboard years ago, but never used the online, webinar creator called Blackboard Collaborate. It had even been a couple years since I had taken a course. I came to understand, though, that I was in good hands. The folks at Oakland Schools had done this before and worked out the bugs; they were organized and thorough, competent and patient. In addition, I would be presenting with the aid of a moderator. Knowing that I had a wing-man who knew his way around Blackboard and technology in general, lessened my stress level right away. Craig was solid and I literally could not have done it without him (partly because I would have gone crazy trying to keep track of the chat room).

This whole 4T experience strengthened my understanding of what it takes to facilitate a webinar. I’m confident that I could handle the creation and leading of a webinar — possibly with some coaching help and/or a chat room moderator. They gave me the tools and the time to work out my concerns (Did I struggle? You betcha. Did I consider giving up? Yes sir. I ended up trusting that I would figure it out and not make a complete idiot of myself. Mostly true.) I see all that goes into a webinar and, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to lead another webinar in the near future. I like the interactivity that blackboard allows participants, but the whole experience is a bit impersonal. Too distant and detached for me as a teacher (and as a learner). It may be the next wave of teaching opportunities, but I’m not completely on board. I would much rather deal with airport security and go to a conference to present (and you may have heard me rant about airport security before). It could be that I just need a break from thinking about webinaring (is that a word?) for awhile. Maybe with time, I’ll feel like jumping in again. It was rewarding to get positive feedback on my presentation; the topic seemed to resonate with several of the attendees.

Here’s a link to the webinar I presented called “Helping Students See Their Own Growth Through Digital Writing.” Webinars on other digital writing topics are on the page and even more are listed under the tab,’Conference Archive.’ I recommend taking the time to check out some that sound interesting to you.

Bonus video: A stunning Milky Way and Northern Lights display

One Day at a Conference

In a perfect world, I would somehow be able to go to every conference that I want to attend. I would go into my backyard and pick hundred dollar bills off my dollar tree and mail them in. I would suspend time and be in two places at once (family and the conference or work and the conference…). Back in the real world, though, none of that happens and I end up going to one day of a conference (and finding a way to avoid paying registration all together), instead of attending two, back-to-back two-day conferences in the same city.

Though I’ve attended the MACUL conference before, I decided to skip it this year. Part of my reasoning was that I had been asked to present a Tech Talk at the MRA conference the next day. I like the informal nature of Tech Talks and my ego convinced me that I had something to say. Both conferences were in Grand Rapids, MI, and I’m sure I could have benefited from the speakers, the presenters, and the teaching ideas from both conferences. I decided to just attend the one day of MRA that I was presenting, however, after two things happened: my wallet and my wife both spoke to me about it in their own ways. My wife talks in her sleep sometimes and I swear she said “Enough is enough” while she slept the other night. I took that to mean that I needed to be around more (what else could it have meant, really?). Then, when I was totaling up the cost of the two conferences and reached for my wallet to pay for them, my wallet fell off the table onto the floor as if it was trying to run away.

All of which brings my day at the MRA conference. I was fortunate to hear RJ Palacio, the author of Wonder, speak to the general session of over 500 teachers. Even before that, though, she signed her book for me and I was able to tell her personally how much I enjoyed reading it (and that Maddie, one of my students, recommended it to me); she seemed very pleased by this.


She wrote “Choose Kind” in my book; if you haven’t read Wonder yet (and you really should read it), that’s a reference to one of the main themes of the book, which is if you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose kind. Her talk was partly about how she went from being a successful graphic artist to being a writer and partly about the impact the book has had on people. I wish I could have videoed the whole talk, but I did take a few photos that tell part of the story.

Captions for the following photos (top to bottom): These are the post-it notes she wrote to herself about the idea for the book; a classroom of students who read her book, holding it up; a blog for the book and its twitter handle, #choosekind




I presented on the subject of “Using Wikis as Digital Writing Portfolios” at my Tech Talk; I also spent some time at the other Tech Talks: Mark Raffler shared some Common Core Resources at the MAISA website; Jeremy Hyler explained a free website that has a myriad of recent, informational articles which students or teachers can adjust reading levels to match students’ levels; and Dan Polleys shared some iPad apps

The only session I attended was led by my friends, Troy Hicks and Jeremy Hyler. They have written a new book called Create, Compose, Connect: Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools. Their session was about teaching students how to argue by showing them the nuts and bolts of the process. I found their talk very interesting and went out and bought the book. I plan to incorporate their ideas into an upcoming, cross-curricular unit with the Science classes.

All of that was less than one full day at a conference. Unless you’ve been to a conference lately, you may not realize how the rewards outweigh the costs in so many ways. Between the excellent speakers, the relevant information, and the connections with new and old friends, conferences are well worth the time, energy, and expense. I hope you seriously consider attending a conference the next chance you get.

That was last week and the following is my upcoming week.

This Tuesday and Wednesday, I’ll be proctoring a pilot of the Smarter Balanced test. Though students can take a practice test, I’m pretty sure most won’t take the time. This is the first online standardized test I will have ever administered and their first one to take. It surprised me that one student said she would be absent those days since she was opting out of the test; I didn’t think that that option was well known. We’ve prepared for proctoring the test as well as we could have and I hope it goes well (computers cooperate, we explain the procedures clearly, students understand the directions and do their best, etc.).

On Wednesday night, I’m flying to Washington D.C. to attend the National Writing Project Spring Meeting. I’ll be one of two teacher representatives from Red Cedar Writing Project which is located at Michigan State University. We’ll be speaking with Senate and Congressional aides and asking them to fund our writing project and its programs. I’m excited (and a bit nervous) about this opportunity. Be assured, I plan to blog about it.

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time”

James Taylor’s song lyrics are one of the more simplistic, yet important, reminders I need in life. Sure, it’s easy for me to say. I lead quite a privileged life in my safe midwestern community being the white male (though I like to think of myself as an ethnic, Armenian-American) that I am. I am truly blest in many ways: a job that suits me well and pays the bills, a loving family, close friends, regular leisure time, good health, and a myriad other blessings. And while I am aware of those gifts from God on a daily basis, it’s possible to forget that I have something to do with my happiness. I have a role in it. I could be a grumbler and want more. I could complain about this and that. I choose to enjoy the passage of time. I set aside the negativity and find a way to be positive. I’m somewhere between an optimist and a realist. My mother used to tell me, “You’ve got to make your own fun” and I’ve taken her up on it. Between being a reading sponge of books, writing poems, doing sudoku, singing, dancing, exercising my silly perspective, being observant of other peoples’ silliness, and learning to play the guitar at 50, I generally enjoy the passage of time most days.

Starting tomorrow, I crank it up a notch with my buddies. Getting away to the Au Sable River to fish for a week is a wonderful combination of peacefulness, survival, relaxation, fun, and frustration (I’m not really a fisherman). For over 20 years, we’ve been working hard at planning enjoyment into our lives on a regular basis. This is a photo of what I’ll look like tomorrow (taken a couple years ago by my tent mate, Barry).

CanoeTrip_2011-Barry 004

Other ways to have some fun:

* Check out the East Lansing Michigan Modern tour (it’s a driving/biking tour of the modern architecture in our city) or take a Michigan Modern tour in a city near you. This is part of a current exhibit on the ground floor of the MSU Museum, which sounds interesting to me.

* Read a good book or read an article about summer reading lists and what they have to say about our communities.

* Drive to North Dakota and visit the International Peace Garden like Aaron did (well, he rode his bike). That’s where he’s camping tonight; it’s a shared garden space on the border between the U.S. and Canada. Check the google map from time to time for updates. (Floral flags of each country at the Peace Garden, below)


* Try not to think about the fact that Jim Leyland still believes in Jose Valverde. “Basically what it boils down to is, everybody can tell me I’m bald, but no one can tell me how to grow hair” Leyland said (from the Tiger’s website).

Still in East Lansing…with dreams of San Antonio

It’s supposed to be a 25 minute flight from Lansing to Detroit. After 20 minutes in the air (somewhere over Brighton, I’d say), the stewardess came onto the intercom and said

“We have bad news and more bad news.”

Our plane had too much ice or something. For some reason we couldn’t land in Detroit due to the ice issue; we had to return to Lansing. If we could have voted, I’m sure we would have tried Detroit.

It was probably the safe thing to do, but the minute we heard we were returning to Lansing, most of us knew our chances to make our connecting flights were slim. And that part of the trip did come true — no flight from any airline could put us in San Antonio before 3 pm. tomorrow. The “us” I am referring to now includes my friend, Carlin, a doctoral student at MSU and, like me, a RCWP Teacher Consultant.

So at this point, we are scheduled for an 11:55 am flight out of Lansing, putting us in SA at 3:35 pm.

Crap to be sure, but better than nothing. We will miss two important sessions, but hopefully will make a Tech Liaison meeting, then dinner with our RCWP friends. And I need to be there well before Friday morning when I present on Digital Storytelling as part of a roundtable (more about that later).

Silver linings? We’re alive. I have time to get some prep work done and maybe correct a few papers so I don’t have to take them with me. And…I hate to go all Polly Anna on y’all, but when we were above the clouds (and Brighton) the view was absolutely gorgeous. A blanket of white clouds, rolling like the sea, and a golden orange sunset.

That’s about when she came on the intercom with the news.

For another version of this trip, see my class wiki