Memories of France and Italy

I’m sorry, but “What was your favorite city?” is not a fair question. Yes, I have answered it, but if you have traveled much at all (and I hope you have), you know that it’s unlikely that one particular place rose above the rest of the amazing places.

Though I do understand the impetus of the question. You want me to relate the highlights of a 24 day get-away in a succint and helpful manner. You want to know, quickly, which place you may want to go on your trip someday (or maybe you’re just being polite). The problem is that visiting new places is very experiential. It happens, it’s awesome, and then you move on to the next amazing place. Unless one takes a video of the whole experience (which I’ve seen others do) — and even that isn’t the same — being there is really the only way to get across the enormity of the cathedral, the brilliant colors of the 15th century fresco, or the thrill of being 12,600 feet up in the mountains and seeing three countries at once. Words don’t do these experiences justice…so I should just stop writing….

Since I appreciate you taking the time to read this blog entry, however, here are my top seven favorite memories from our recent trip to France and Italy:

1. The greater Paris area speaks to me. The Metro is so useful and relatively cheap. The train (which is different from the Metro) helped us get to Giverny quickly and enjoy Monet’s gardens. We found ourselves at the top of places, searching for more stunning viewpoints (ie., Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and our 4th floor Airbnb, up one of many circular stairways). We enjoyed a riverboat cruise on the Seine River on the first night, too (Judy reaches to touch a bridge, below…click on the photo to enlarge it).

2. Beaune was memorable for the wine tastings, the food, and Daniele (our Airbnb host) and her generosity. I was surprised that the wine tastings were in the cellars of the winery; we snaked through over a mile of tunnels lined with wine barrels and stopped occasionally to drink a small quantity of various, delicious wines.

3. Mont Blanc took my breath away. That is, the views were gorgeous and we were so high up (12,600 feet) that I had some trouble breathing. We were in the French Alps at Chamonix, France, and found it charming and welcoming. We took the gondola up to Aiguille du Midi, an observation platform to view Mont Blanc; Rick Steves was there last year and made a short, informational video. Judy was in her glory with mountain views in every direction. We stayed at a beautiful, rustic hotel on the Arve River called the Hotel d’Arve And ‘stepped into the void’ for a dramatic photo.

4. The Amalfi Coast is gorgeous. We stepped into the Mediterranean Sea on some black, slippery stones in Positano. Then, later we stayed in a wonderful family hotel on a hill near Sorrento that overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea and Naples and Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

5. We were only in Venice for a couple days and in that short time we glimpsed the integral and complex place that diverse boats play there. We were on water taxis, a gondola, a water subway, a car ferry, and a regular ferry on our way out to the island of Lido to get to our hotel. And we found ourselves up high again to get a new perspective.

6. Staying at the Grand Hotel on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy with the Alps on the horizon was incredibly picturesque and the hotel’s lasagna was the lightest, most delicious of the trip. It was a resort area with a very relaxing vibe and I would go back in a nano-second.

7. Judy and I had a remarkable dinner experience in the Tuscany region outside of Florence at the Villa Machiavelli — excellent food (I had a T-bone steak), serenaded by a talented singer and guitar player, some impromptu dancing with Alissa (our travel director) and Preston (a new friend from Massachusetts with an artistic, fun sense), intersting conversation…and several local varieties of wine!

I would return to all of those spots. And many more. (I would have to win the Lotto to do it again soon…if you’re thinking about doing a similar trip and want to talk about costs for such a trip, email me at and we’ll talk over coffee.) Traveling is almost always costly, but it is always worth it, in my experience. I find that if I spend too long in my safe, predictable space, I forget about the rest of the world. I don’t think about people speeding along at 180 miles per hour on bullet trains or people who feel they need to pickpocket or palm bills upon payment in order to survive. I forget that there are other, interesting things to eat for breakfast, that even ice cream can blow your mind (as in…gelato), and that lemons (super-huge lemon skins) can be turned into tasty Limoncello. Travel spices up life by reminding us of the diversity of people and cultures. I can’t wait until we plan another get-away.

A few rules or guidelines we tried to live by while we were there:
1. Use a rest room whenever you have the chance because you may not see one again for awhile (or you may have to pay for it…some public rest rooms in Italy cost .50 euro – 1 euro to use).
2. Use the language of the country if possible. People seemed to appreciate it if we said Hello, Thank you, You’re welcome, and other phrases in the language of the country…although I think I said Parle vouz anglais? (Do you speak, English?) more than any other phrase.
3. If you hear English being spoken by others, assume they are tourists and engage them in conversation. That connection with strangers in a foreign place is like finding a surprise, temporary relative. We met people from many states (FL, CA, PA, NY, TX…) that way, as well as interesting blokes from England and Australia.
4. Wear your money belt (with credit cards, passport, and some euros) almost all the time you are in a public place. With exceptions like the hotel restaurant and the pool, we felt safer with our valuables under one layer of clothes. We still had a few bills and some change accessible in pockets, but not the more valuable items.
5. If your feet are happy, you’ll be happy. We both had amazing shoes with us — I wore my Keen hiking boots and Judy wore a Keen sandal with a closed toe most of the time. These shoes had plenty of support, some breathing space, decent comfort, and weren’t excessively heavy.
6. Write down what you did every day because it’s tough to remember later on. Judy was great at this.
7. Take some photos, but don’t go crazy with it…enjoy the moment. That may be hard to believe, if you follow the link to the photo album I put together. However, I could have filmed the whole trip…it was that amazing…so finding your own balance is necessary. You’ll see people who go overboard — don’t be that person.
8. Look up…and down. The ceilings are often the most impressive part of the view. Frescos cover many ceilings and multi-colored marble and granite show up when you least expect it. Ditto on the floors.
9. Let somebody who knows the area do the driving. We used the Metro in Paris, our Eurail passes several times crossing France and then, in Italy, let the bus driver get us places (we took the Best of Italy bus tour with Trafalgar, which we highly recommend; we also recommend Affordable Tours to book the tour). It lowered our stress-levels significantly to trust others to get us places and not try to figure it out — especially since we hadn’t been to most of the places we visited. It was more expensive, but I was so glad we had made that choice. And I still remembered how to drive when we returned…so yeah.
10. Rick Steves is usually right, so don’t doubt him.

Here are some of our photos and videos for your enjoyment. Let me know if you want a personal explanation of any or all of them:

France and some of Italy

More of Italy

The Cascade du Dard (waterfall) near Chamonix, France video

Alissa tells Odysseus/Sirens story on the road to Positano, Italy, video

Today’s word is ‘miscellaneous’

‘miscellaneous’ (misəˈlānēəs) adjective — (of items or people gathered or considered together) of various types or from different sources.

synonyms: various, varied, different, assorted, mixed, sundry, diverse, disparate

These days, information is flying at us at warp speed. I have trouble categorizing all of it. Organizing the onslaught of information into usable bits. So every once in awhile, I have a blog post like this one.

Here are a bunch of random thoughts and photos. Some need no explanation and some, whether they need it or not, I’ve explained.

The first photo (below) is how I often feel, whether I’m working around the house, writing something, or teaching a lesson. It’s all good, though. Just journeying on….

The second and third photo have an Abraham Lincoln theme and a ‘how things have changed’ theme. Then there’s humor, of course.

The fourth photo is of my 6th hour taking the Smarter Balanced pilot test. This is not a posed photo. They look incredibly demoralized because they are. The fifth photo is of a screen we saw too many times when trying to get students logged into the test (uber frustrating).

The final photo is of a vehicle I saw parked in a regular spot in Washington D.C. I want to say it was my taxi, but that would be a fib.

Bonus Poem: my sweet old etcetera by e.e. cummings

your plan


gettyburg tweet




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.

Aaron gets off his bike in Seattle!

Rachel and Aaron
This afternoon, Aaron made it to Rachel and Robbie’s apartment in Seattle.
According to Rachel, he “busted through the door with a big “Hello!” And there was much whooping and laughing.
He traveled over 3,000 miles in 74 days (keeping very close to his 40 miles a day average that he planned on at the beginning). Judy and I are extremely happy, of course, that Aaron made it safely. We do appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers over the last couple months.

Some said it was inconceivable
or even impossible
to comprehend “letting” him go
on the trip (as if we had any say in the matter).
Though we were very concerned about his safety,
our over-riding feelings were (and are) pride, excitement, jealousy, curiosity, and joy.

I was looking for a poem to express this combination of feelings and the following They May Be Giants song comes pretty close.

“Impossible” by They Might Be Giants (just the music, no motion)

And Aaron would probably say that this trip isn’t really over…so here’s one more They May Be Giants tune (this one has cool stop-motion visuals) that seems to fit.

“Happy Doesn’t Have to Have an Ending”

Both of these songs come off of the
Bed, Bed, Bed CD which is $15 at this website.

Here’s another look at the most recent the google map if you need it.
And here’s another look at the middle part of his journey.
And here’s another look at the beginning part of his journey.

Another Aaron sighting

Aaron spent some time with Marv and Peggy Dunn last night (click on the photo to make it larger). They are on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, where Aaron plans to explore for the next few days up to a week. Aaron looks to be in good shape…more tanned, still thin (but it’s probably mostly muscle by this time), and sporting his normal, positive attitude. He’s moving right along, despite more headwinds.