Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On fragmenting & fragments

I love to read. I love to foster students' excitement about reading. I love when students who claim they don't love reading maybe, just maybe, start to change their minds -- a little. For these reasons and others, I champion independent reading as a classroom priority.

It's not all peaches and cream, though. I also notice downsides of independent (vs. shared) reading. For instance, our classroom community does less connecting and thinking together about books. It doesn't have to be this way; lately, it just is. Some student feedback at the end of this semester has me thinking about that and subtly different approaches we might take in 2017.

Mean time, I'm using this space (increasingly) to share slices of what I'm reading. A few powerful quotes are sticking with me from the book I just finished, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This space seems like a good one to park them, along with a few related thoughts...
  • On why Kalanithi pursued a career in medicine versus one in a more abstract realm like literature or philosophy: "Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action." (43) I take this as a reminder, when teaching, not to get too bogged down in analysis when brisk action might be key.
  • On the doctor/patient relationship, crystallizing a stance I aspire to take with students: "Here we are together, and here are the ways through -- I promise to guide you, as best I can, to the other side." (88)
  • On growth mindsets by way of math metaphor: "You can't ever reach perfection , but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." (115)
  • On death, dying and the calculations science make: "The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability." (135) This dynamic has analogs in education as many students and their families, and school systems even, equate failure with a killing blow.
  • On seeking connections in service of learning: "Human knowledge is never contained in one person. it grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete." (172)
Thanks for reading.



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Five slices of Breakout EDU life

It's the last week of the semester where I teach. From today through Friday, I meet each class for one 90-minute block to put a proverbial bow on four months together. That could be an opportunity for an exam (final or otherwise), a culminating project, or a mid-year course evaluation. Instead, I'm opting to introduce students to Breakout Edu. Here are a few observations from round one...
  • DIY'ing the materials is well within reach, thanks to the open-source nature of the project. Just as there are many ways to skin cats, there are equivalent ways to break out. Both actual and digital.
  • With a minimum of direction and the game afoot at eight this morning, most of the 27 students... They. Just. Started. Doing. Stuff. This was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening for the part of me that's a professional control freak. As events proceeded, I often found myself wanting to interject and, you know, teach. I resisted this temptation (my tongue still hurts from all the biting). I see now how being less helpful made space for students to help themselves and each other, not to mention sit with frustration.
  • Just because the design is open source doesn't mean it's easy or fool-proof. Last night, I managed to lock myself out of the directional lock on my first attempt changing the combination. (Imperfect gift for the holidays: Master-Lock paperweight?) Chagrin eventually gave way to problem solving when I decided to create a digital lock instead via a Google Form. Even better: a knot of students broke out in delighted shouts when they cracked it. And likely best of all: turns out the lock opened thanks to the creative know-how of one eighth grader who found a side door, not the way I had intended at all.
  • For the record, the second lock gave way under similarly unorthodox pressure, though not of the physical variety. I may need to rethink puzzle design, which feels like my own refreshing learning.
  • Not breaking out need not be a failure -- at least, not a lasting one. Students opened two of four locks in 45 minutes of play; then, we debriefed. That conversation invited students to notice both productive and counter-productive ways they approached problems. Students unpacked both group and individual dynamics, what they'd want to do again vs. what they'd rather avoid. One equanimous eighth-grade soul even reminded us that (I'm paraphrasing) experiences in life can surpass the outcomes if we let them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sound of one butterfly wing flapping

Part of this is a slice of life, and part is me reeling kaleidoscopically. Let's start with the slice.

On Monday, I started each of five classes by theatrically pouring out a box of stuff I had collected around the room the prior week: books and writing utensils abandoned at work stations, water bottles, empty drink cans, paper (whole and scraps), gum and candy wrappers, other detritus adolescents (among others) are prone to leave behind. Students mimed horror; a few gasped. I pointed students back to our self-study of design thinking to start the year and asked, "How might we improve this situation? How might we care better for the space we share?" Students offered a mix of ideas and excuses. Among the moments that made me smile: the sixth grader who offered wonderingly, "I guess we just need to be more aware."

The kaleidoscope started twirling on the drive home. I heard a radio interview with an author about "what it means to be a futurist" (transcript here, for the curious). The part that stuck with me and sent me deeper down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts was the writer's reference to meteorology professor Edward Lorenz who originated chaos theory. That particular idea I likely know best from this film:


Back in front of a computer, my next click brought me to a synopsis of Lorenz's work, including his finding that "small changes can have big consequences." Lorenz contrasts his view with deterministic ones in which "only one thing can happen next" based on whatever prior conditions led to a particular point.

While Lorenz unfolded his thinking from experience with weather models, his notions resonate for me in education. I crave (and sometime cling to) deterministic views of learning with their tidy causes and effects, even when I'm regularly confronted with messiness and unpredictability. Sometimes, as shown in the last week, that messiness can even be literal.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Plimptoniphany?

I live near a library and enjoy grazing the shelves in search of serendipitous reading opportunities. This M.O. led to me spending Thanksgiving with George Plimpton's Paper Lion, a literary journalistic account of the author's try-out with the NFL's Detroit Lions in 1963. (The book was reissued this year with other Plimpton titles.)

A passage I came across today on page 230 provided grist for blogging -- not to mention my first foray into the nascent world of #booksnaps. Here it is:


(Fret not, book protectors, I didn't mark up the library's copy; that's all digital post-production.) Plimpton writes these paragraphs as scene setters. He's about to take the field, following weeks of practice, to quarterback five actual plays in a Lions scrimmage in Pontiac, Michigan.

Reading this, my teaching sensibilities tingle. It's the precise feeling I want my students to kindle in themselves. Even as they harbor doubts, I crave for them to feel like great readers and writers: looking and acting those parts; committing to their preparation; faking it (if they must) en route to making it; belonging, ultimately.

For his part, the author of Paper Lion makes an inauspicious gridiron debut (-29 yards of offense in just five plays). He does, though, learn plenty about himself and stretch beyond any conceivable comfort zone. That's a Plimptonic ideal to which my students and I ought to aspire, I figure.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Multi-level marketing, Madoff, & me

Turns out I can and can't put a price on good health. Over the past nine months, I've had a close-up view of medical care that -- knock on wood! -- I've largely been spared to this point in my life. I'm now doing some accounting at (what I hope to be) the end of this process; or at least the end of this particular knee-ligament reconstruction. Here are the ledger's broad strokes as I've gleaned them...

Since March, my employer has paid $4,608 in insurance premiums. I've been responsible, meanwhile, for $3,357.03 in co-pays and co-insurance. A digital deluge of explanations of benefits has kindly reminded me that, without insurance coverage, all this recent medical attention would've set me back $35,707.11. The insurance folks also let me know their negotiated share of the bills has been $7,685.65 -- effectively, $3,077.65 if we subtract my employer's premium-based contributions.

Bottom line: I should visit the HR office and thank my employer. It's been purchasing my health insurance for over a decade in which I've minimally tapped those contributions for preventive care. Which leaves me wondering: What, if anything, separates this system from a pyramid scheme? Is it the group buying power that negotiated down the full-tilt costs?


Monday, November 14, 2016

Moon-i-verse

Look, up in the sky,
is it a bird, a plane?
It's SuperMoon.

Moon among moons,
Moon about town,
Moon of the hour
(or of the past 68 years).

Big moon on campus.
A moon of few words,
yet a moon of the world.

Renaissance moon,
iron moon,
boss moon,
main moon,
marked moon.

Low moon on the totem pole?
Can't keep a good moon down!

Yes-moon,
a self-made moon,
a moon of means.
Odd moon out,
a one-moon show.


Monday, November 7, 2016

9+ slices from EdTechTeam Colorado Summit

Google for Education may be going through an identity crisis: Exit apps and GAFE, in with Suite, and subsequent hashtag scrambling. But that doesn't mean the past weekend's Colorado Summit wasn't stuffed with learning. Here are some bits and links I took away...
  • Notion #1: The latest and greatest technology we've used today is probably the worst version that a five-year-old growing up today may ever see. Notion #2: Grades are a false endpoint in a world of continuous iteration, and they undermine critical thinking. Thanks for the insights, Jamie Casap. Both ideas have implications for the present and future of learning.
  • Google Feud offered addictive play based on search results. Thanks, Sandra Chow.
  • Sandra also encouraged me to re-see GSlides as a collaborative platform for differentiating tasks for students, not just for presentations.
  • My mind reeled -- literally and figuratively -- when taking in 360° videos or visuals. See YouTube or the New York Times for examples. Thanks, Micah Shippee.
  • BadgeU, a GSheets add-on, may just bring DIY credentialing within reach for me and reluctant independent readers with whom I work. Thanks, Dan Sharpe.
  • Dan also tipped off the demo slam audience to GIFit!, an extension for clipping GIFs from YouTube videos.
  • In my brain, I'm still turning over keynote comment that each person in the audience was the oldest we've ever been and the youngest we'll ever be. What might that mean for me? Do those words belong on a fortune cookie, or do they have more staying power? Thanks for the provocation, Molly Schroeder.
  • Folks like Julie Stewart are implementing creative changes at the classroom level, re-imagining learning spaces, while folks like Brendan Brennan are spreading far-reaching moonshot ideas for the whole education system. Our field and our future are dynamic.
  • The advancing armies of Bitmoji'd or Androidify'd avatars made my hand-made caricature self quake in his digital boots.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Cut & slice

The woman cutting my hair yesterday asked me, "What do you do?"

"I teach middle-school students English," I said.

She gave me a familiar look in the mirror, blending her rueful smile with an eye roll. It said both, "God bless you" and "You're crazy."

She went on. "I remember my English classes. They were my A classes. Except for one. In high school, I chose a class on 15th century English. It sounded interesting. That teacher gave tests every Friday, and I just couldn't pass them. I showed up every day, though. I think the teacher ended up giving me a C because of my effort."

Minutes later, I left this exchange, the outside of my head newly shorn, the inside roiling. I'd guess a generation or two of living separates my students from the woman who cut my hair. Yet talk of grades -- rarely learning -- still tends to dominate the day where I work. What about the future I imagine where my students have very different recollections of school? That's going to require some serious counter-programming...

Monday, October 24, 2016

Milestone & millstone

Monday, I graduated. From physical therapy. It felt good. And weird.

The good part: Who wouldn't like to know that his surgically repaired leg is functionally comparable to its un-operated on neighbor?

The weird: Any previous graduations that I can recall (all education related) came with a comforting sense of finality; I knew I wouldn't be doing over, say, high school or college. Not so in this case, as a surgery and PT-free future is promised to no one.

Of course, there are both productive and preventive steps I can take to keep myself in working order. That doesn't mean, though, that I'm not staring across a vertiginous chasm of new risk/reward calculus. Anticipating a sportier future after five months of diligent rehab, I miss my former aura of invincibility -- false or not.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Alternative energy

Where I live, against the foothills of the Rockies, it can get windy. Like yesterday. Depending on where you were in these parts, winds might've gusted between 40 and 70 miles per hour. Leaves flew everywhere, and a few branches came down. Colleagues and I stubbornly sat outside for lunch, trying to keep our food containers from blowing onto ourselves or each other.

Then last night, as I settled in by my laptop, preparing to finish some work and thinking of what slice I might write, the power went out.

I sat in the black, listening to my apartment shudder and mentally listing the abundance I so often take for granted. My eyes adjusting, I began to see the moon's pale light bathing everything. My mind adjusted, too. I changed my plans to include reading by headlamp and early bedtime.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Top Five - a #sunchatbloggers production

As superheros go, Batman is mostly a regular guy. (You know, as regular as an orphaned, vengeful, reclusive, monomaniacal billionaire can be.) He just happens to carry a lot of useful stuff. This gives me hope as a teacher, and I consider these five items key components in my teaching utility belt.

Awesome Screenshot extension: Virtual grappling hook for grabbing screenshots. Crop 'em, annotate 'em, make demonstrations make sense.

Power Tools Google sheets add-on: Suite of tools that have potential to work mind control on spreadsheet cells. Lately, I'm a fan of the Data Random Generator. Pair that with a class roster and mix up groups of various sizes with the click of a button. Sometimes students choose with whom to work; other times I group intentionally; and yet other times we're jokers who roll the proverbial dice.

Giphy site: If pictures are worth a thousand words, what's the going rate for moving pictures? This collection of GIFs turns documents (hyper or otherwise) into -- pow! -- fun Saturday morning cartoons, not to mention livening up Google forms, Tweets, or even e-mail.

Classroom Organizer site: For a class library, it's like Uber meets the Batmobile. More flexible and faster than circulating books via loose-leaf scribbles kept on a clipboard.

Diigo extension: When resource listicles fly around the Internet, this social bookmarking site plays Robin -- a worthy sidekick who has my organizing back.

Thanks, #sunchatbloggers, for the encouragement and writing inspiration. Which tools top your list for utility?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Walk-off

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper. --T.S. Eliot, from "The Hollow Men"

Monday night, I tuned into Cleveland vs. Boston. The Red Sox have been my team since childhood, though I consider myself a tepid member, at best, of any team-oriented Nation. Nevertheless, October plants in me an urge to get last looks at baseball diamonds before the long winter settles in. So I watched.

I watched the Sox fall behind, inch back, lose ground again. I watched slugger David Ortiz in potentially his last game before retiring, unable to rally his team with anything more than a sacrifice fly. I watched him draw a walk in the bottom of the eight and advance to second on a teammate's base hit. I felt hope flash in this one-run game. Then, I watched Ortiz lifted for a pinch runner who wouldn't advance any further.


Designated hitters like Ortiz are used to doing a lot of watching, I presume. Still, it must feel disconcerting -- near the end of a 20-year career full of game-changing moments -- to have the ninth inning decided outside of one's control. Tactically, the circumstances made sense for Ortiz to leave the game. Emotionally, it was a moment for rueful sighs. Not the end of the world; just the end.






Monday, October 3, 2016

Shot in the arm

Hustling between
mundane Monday errands,
I squeeze in a flu shot.

Time will tell
how protective
its value,
how worth it
not sleeping
on my left side
for one night
to spare
my achy arm
will prove.

Delirious
with attenuated viruses,
my thoughts conjure
an analogy:

As a vaccine
is to the immune system,
is not literacy
to the mind?


Monday, September 26, 2016

Not that debate, another one

In case you missed it Monday night, there was a presidential debate, which reminded me of my own debating experience, which triggered this slice.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent a gap year as an exchange student in England. (It wasn't called a gap year at the time, but study-abroad.) Hindsight tells me I went into that experience as a callow fellow. So, I embarked on the adventure with clear intentions to shake off my callowness by saying yes to most invitations that came my way.

Thanks to that casual calculus, I found myself standing in front of a crowded lecture hall one month after I arrived in 'England's green and pleasant land.' The occasion was the weekly convening of my school's debating society. The society invited; I accepted. Thus, I was tapped to take the con side, arguing against the following claim: "The world would be a better place if America had not been discovered."

The audience was politely hostile; I was still plenty callow. Let's cut to the chase: Charged with defending my country's place on the planet, I failed.

Then, as now, the world kept spinning. Plenty of work remained to do.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The slice where I invite more voices

For today's slice, here's a conversation among four students. It unfolded as a string of comments added to a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet contained a list of English standards that we've been re-purposing in middle-school-friendly ways, as well as room for students to reflect on their progress in relation to those standards. During today's class, I wanted students' input on a draft of this sheet.

To serve us well, it should afford practice that enhances students' self-assessment and feedback capacities, not to mention their requisite reading/writing/speaking know-how. I envision this document inching us towards a more collaborative stance on grading. (I've changed student names because that felt like the right thing to do.)


Exchanges like this strike me as meaningful for pedagogy generally and direct instruction specifically. I'm still trying to put my finger on that meaning. Sure, Stu asks a crux question; Misty wants to belong; and Ann shows admirable initiative, but should cite sources better -- and may still not know what she's parroting! Among the bigger fish that seem worth frying is how, in the worthiest learning, application ought to trump recall.

What do you see looking through this slice-lens?


Monday, September 12, 2016

Twist of life in nine lines


Efforts to rehab my reconstructed knee
continue.
Saturday, I tested its mettle

with ginger twisting
to extricate myself
from my bike's clipless pedals.

Felt momentously uneventful,
no big thing,
for having been first go since spring.



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Under the wire by a nose?

Before becoming a teacher, I was a sportswriter. I still enjoy the dramatic story lines and athletic feats inherent in sports, not to mention the abundantly available metaphors. So, count this entry as my checked-swing effort to dribble a hit past tonight's Slice of Life deadline. A bloop to keep my weekly blogging streak alive.

An hour ago, I found myself near the end of middle-school Back to School Night. Two parents dropped in to ask a question about Ultimate Frisbee on behalf of their son in high school. (The son, I'd taught back in sixth grade; Ultimate Frisbee is a volunteer coaching gig for me these days.) After getting their question answered, the parents also gifted me with the news that their younger son, still in middle school, fondly remembered my attendance at a play in which he acted last year and a compliment I'd shared with him about his scene-stealing performance. (He and I have not yet shared a classroom.)

At the end of a long day, the exchange left me wrapped in the comfortable blanket of historian Henry Adams' now borderline cliche: "A teacher...can never tell where his influence stops." Sometimes, though, we get clues.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Safety drill

You know the drill. You're sitting on an airplane, taxiing before takeoff, and either there's a crew of flight attendants (or a talking-head video) running through safety routines. How to buckle your seat belt. Where the exits, lavatories, and flotation devices are. You know.

That was me last night, experiencing a familiar ritual. Until the person on the microphone threw in a curve ball. During the bit about oxygen masks -- how in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, they'll drop from the ceiling, how to pull the mask towards me to start the flow of oxygen, how the bag might not inflate but that oxygen is still flowing, how to adjust the mask around my face using elastics, how to help my child first (if I had one) before putting on my own mask -- the flight attendant slyly said this, "If you're sitting with more than one child, choose your favorite."

I couldn't help smiling and connecting her joke to the classroom where there are countless choices to face, often impossible ones about what to prioritize over what. Fortunately, they also tend to be more forgiving ones that can be revisited and adjusted often, different from the looming finality of last night's dangling oxygen mask, tinged with dark humor.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Grades what-if

Starting our second week together Monday, I asked 82 eighth graders to respond to this in writing...
What if school didn’t have grades? What would be different? What would stay the same? How might this be better or worse than the way things are now?
Their thoughts ran the gamut from verbal shrugs to fire-and-brimstone proclamations that abandoning grades would lead inevitably to Armageddon.

Among the responses (paraphrased and noted by yours truly during class conversation):

  • Without grades, nobody will be motivated, and everyone will put in less effort.
  • Why should students work hard if not for good grades? Aren't grades why we come to school?
  • Students would enjoy lower stress.
  • What would colleges do? How would they decide whom to admit?
  • Without grades, teachers won't know how students are doing.
  • Without grades, how will students know how they are doing? How will parents? (who often feel out of the school loop, outside of grade communication)
  • There'd be no more tests and quizzes or, if there still were, students wouldn't care about them.
  • Tests can still show what people know, independent of having grades attached.
  • Maybe self and peer evaluation would become more important, but these methods have their own flaws.
  • Some people go too easy or too hard on themselves when judging their own work.
  • Social situations can bias peer evaluations. That's one reason mixing it up and not always getting feedback from the same person or people could be worthwhile.
  • Teachers would still have evaluative parts to play, grades or no grades.
  • Grades serve the purpose of identifying a "good" level of work.
  • Poor grades signal mistakes that students can learn from. How will such growth unfold in the absence of grades?
  • Ditching grades might provoke more creativity and risk taking in learners, but might also cause some students to pull up short of their potential.
  • Spending less time grading and worrying about grades would benefit both students and teachers who would have more time for family and fun.
  • What about middle ground -- not keeping grades exactly as they are, but also not throwing them out entirely?
I craved food for thought, and now I suspect my students and I won't go hungry for quite some time seeking shifty middle ground.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My why, first draft

I suspect there's more to say here since I've been carrying these thoughts around since Friday... However, given that I'm feeling under a variety of guns, writing short will have to do for now.

On August 12, riding the bus to school on the last day of week-long professional learning and back-to-school readying, I read Dan Myers' blog on the power of testifying. His three questions haunted me: Why are you here? What is your project? How do you testify on its behalf? Then, when I landed at school, we watched part of this video, in which Chris Anderson touts curiosity's power in facilitating learning. The serendipitous mash-up of Myers' and Anderson's thinking felt like a pedagogical Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, coming together into my delicious why.

Literacy is a crucial conduit, feeding curiosity through reading and enabling the spread of ideas through writing and speaking. It greases all the wheels in the learning machine. That thought makes me reach back to something I read last spring in The Innovator's Mindset. Its author George Couros quotes education professor Yong Zhao who says, "Reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling." And there's my why: Support learners of all ages to reach literacy's floor as quickly as possible, so they may start climbing higher as soon as possible.

While I read and (increasingly) write, how else can I testify on behalf of literacy's power? How can you? Or, if not for literacy, then for what?



Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Slice of summer-reading life

Back to school meetings convened today, with students to join the action next week. As far as I'm concerned, that's as good a milestone as any to close the book (heh, heh) on summer reading. I'm going to use this post to highlight my favorites, borrowing a lens I first encountered in Shannon Hitchcock's blog post for Nerdy Book Club.

  • The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner opened a window into how desperation can yield to hope.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs opened a window into how hope can yield to desperation. 
  • The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner opened windows into magic, coping, and the devastating ripples caused by addiction.
  • Lit Up by David Denby held up mirrors to the literate life I have and the ones to which I aspire with my students.
  • When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin opened windows into how loss can send us reeling and love can pull us back.
  • Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk held up a mirror to the importance of sticking up for principles.
  • All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely held up a similar mirror as Wolf Hollow, in a different age under different circumstances.
  • Originals by Adam Grant opened windows into the science and psychology underlying creativity.
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker opened a window into the bonds between people and pets.
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin held up a mirror to how middle school can sometimes feel unforgiving.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel opened a window into the ways family life can be fraught.
  • Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle opened a window into living one's dream.
  • The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey held up a mirror to why I compete the way I do and why that works sometimes better than others.
  • DIY Literacy by Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts opened windows into how simple tools can facilitate more complex writing and reading.
Convalescence turns out to be a boon for reading. The complete slide-show where I tracked my efforts is here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

This not that?

I had another close encounter of the media kind this week (two encounters, really), and I will embrace the blog fodder where I can get it.

I spent Sunday in a furious flurry of house-cleaning before school resumes. In the background, Slacker Radio played -- hyperbole alert! -- the "66 Songs That Changed Everything." A notable moment happened after the DJ cued up "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols. Instead of hearing the punk anthem, I heard a baritone voice alert me that my Slacker settings prevented the song and its "explicit lyrics" from being played. The recording went on to detail how I could change these settings online if I so chose. I hadn't recalled monkeying with any filters; perhaps some default arrangement remained in effect? I shrugged it off, actually finding myself appreciating that Slacker was at least making the censorship transparent and adjustable.

What left me stunned were two other songs bracketing the Sex Pistols' number that I thought would be similarly scrubbed, but weren't. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holliday's haunting ballad about lynching? Play on, says Slacker. NWA's "F*** the Police"? Every F-bomb came through loud and clear, despite its explicitness. I was left wondering: What does Slacker have against the Sex Pistols? Is the station's filter somehow cross over the Brexit?

The next day, I had a similar experience via Twitter, seeing this message in my stream for the first time:

Not unlike Slacker, Twitter gave me a heads up while still permitting me to proceed, eyes presumably wide open, to the "sensitive material." When I clicked through, I saw this ingenious art installation by artist Michael Murphy:


Fair enough to label gun violence as a sensitive issue, but why does Twitter choose to put that on the other side of the wall, while often permitting assorted spam body parts to flow through unchecked?

This aspiring critical consumer wonders: Who's filtering these wonky algorithms? According to Twitter support, we users are, at least indirectly:


P.S. Murray's piece is called "Identity Crisis."


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Back to our regularly scheduled programming?

Today's slice starts in the lounge of a local automotive service department. My trusty steed's just been rolled in for an oil change, so it's me and trepidation, chilling out, waiting for other costly shoes to drop. There's one other fellow on hand, fiddling with the remote control for the courtesy TV. (I do a double-take: The courtesy TV has a remote??) He settles on Fox News. I estimate he's on the far side of 70. For reasons I don't fully understand but which probably have something to do with election season's hyper-charged tension, I decide to conduct an amateur media study for the next half hour. I watch TV and take notes.

The broadcast itself is unpacking Monday night's debut of the Democratic National Convention. Commentators are aghast that ISIS, given its mounting threat, didn't get more mentions throughout the evening. Fox apparently wants to make up for this, and events have obliged. Newscasters alternate DNC-related head shaking with updates from France about two ISIS-backed terrorists having murdered an octogenarian priest during a hostage stand-off this morning. Donald Trump's "evolving" immigration policies also receive coverage. What struck me, though, was the array of commercials (you know, the bits I'd typically surf away from):

  • The latest step-in bathtub technology
  • Back and neck surgery options at the Laser Spine Institute
  • Angie's List touting the quality of its surrogate dog walkers
  • An anti-Clinton campaign ad
  • A recommended facility for lung-cancer treatment
  • An invitation to check out Liberty Mutual Insurance
  • Lear Capital Investment offering to help you weather the latest inevitable economic bubble
  • Trivago on how its website can help you be the savviest hotel shopper
  • ADT encouraging you to beef up your home security.

That's a lot to be worried about, and I couldn't help but think of the gentleman across from me, probably the target audience on this weekday mid-morning. Filter bubbles aren't just for the Internet, and I realize they're not just for Fox News either. (Maybe I'll have to come back early another morning to wrest control of the remote so I can compare MSNBC's fare...)

The experience reminded me of a comment that Jason Ohler made during ISTE 2016, about the pervasive and potentially insidious influence of companies using big data. "Our output is their input," Ohler said. He went on, "Their outputs become our choices." So, in service of careful, thoughtful media consumption, keep your eyes, ears, brains, and options open.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Oatmeal as undiscovered country

Today's slice of life belongs in a bowl.

I enjoy cooking, and I like reading the occasional cookbook or recipe blog. I used to love reading such texts. However, I eventually arrived at a point -- as most home cooks do -- where riffing independently on internalized recipes and past kitchen experiences became preferable, even liberating. This new-found freedom came with its own downside: the solidifying of boundaries around my cooking comfort zone. Certain wildcards could shake me out of this zone, such as rogue produce dealt in the weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) delivery or a new alluring ingredient on my culinary radar (gochujang, say). I still enjoy cooking; it just doesn't seem to pack as many surprises these days.

That explains my delight with a bowl of oatmeal I made last week. The cupboard was bare of usual breakfast staples, but I knew of a paltry baggie with steel-cut oats. To that, I'd typically add some fresh fruit, which we didn't have. Necessity, meet invention. My cooking brain settled on some stray carrots in the fridge. I wondered: Could I make oatmeal with the flavor profile of carrot cake? Turns out I could. I avoided the temptation to search online for recipes; I wanted to figure out this one on my own. (I later let Google show me 163,000 recipes for "carrot cake oatmeal" in .42 seconds!) I simmered together the oats and grated carrots. I sweetened with light doses of molasses, honey, and brown sugar. I seasoned with generous cinnamon, plus dashes of clove, nutmeg, salt. I tossed in handfuls of raisins and toasted walnuts. (I'm realizing I should give the allegedly bare cupboard more credit...) At the just-right moment of thickness, I ladled out the porridge and threw caution to the wind: I topped each bowl with a spoonful of plain cream cheese -- a nod to carrot cake's magical frosting.

Breakfast was served, my love for cooking's creativity and alchemy rekindled.


In the zone - #cyberPD

In the last #cyberPD chat, one question was about ah-ha moments, and I had one this weekend.

Since the tail end of May I've been spending at least 30 minutes each morning running through physical-therapy exercises, part of life after knee surgery. In the middle of some lunge or squat or who knows what, I had this eureka observation: My physical therapist was acutely tuning in to my zone of proximal development. The ZPD was also a ZPT!

Simply regaining control of my left quadriceps was the first step, one that proved surprisingly hard to manage at first. The therapist resorted to electric stimulation and dry needling to jolt my quads. Once I could reliably engage those muscles on my own, variations on lifting just my leg's weight became the regimen's next order, as well as trying to bend the joint closer and closer to 90 degrees. When those tasks moved within reach, adding repetitions or weight bumped them a little farther out again. Thera-Bands, too, proved ingenious torture. Squatting, lunging, and wall sits came next. Now, I'm continuing those same exercises but with controlled twists or one leg at a time, testing my reconstructed ligament a bit more each day. In this case, teaching to the test (namely, a safe return to sport) feels decidedly okay.

I've been working in Lev Vygotsky's sweet spot through most of this experience, I realized. Neither bored, nor frustrated. I'm being challenged and stretched even as I'm experiencing enough success to stay motivated.

And then I plunged into Chapter Five in DIY Literacy, titled "Just for You: Tailoring Teaching to Meet Students' Needs." See the connection? DIY tools like demonstration notebooks, micro-progressions, teaching charts and bookmarks are all about locating this zone for each reader and writer. (For the record, it's a moving target!) Two statements on page 72 encapsulate this idea for me: "When we find ways to differentiate our teaching that conserve our energy, we are able to do more than just deliver our lessons... By giving students the tools they need, the instructor is helping the students to differentiate for themselves." My physical therapist has been doing this for me (thank you!), and I'm re-committing to doing this for my students.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On professional learning: confession & observation

The Confession
Amid summer's bliss, I have overextended myself. My head has been spinning this week with professional learning opportunities, to which I have said, "Yes, yes, and yes." Teachers Write! CyberPD! Edcamp Voxer! Not to mention this weekly slicing rhythm I've embraced or favorite Twitter chats I frequent. My virtual world has gotten so much bigger that now I feel an urgent need to pare it down, or at least prioritize my participation. I find myself wondering: "What matters most to me amid this smorgasbord? What should I keep versus let go?" I'm also reconsidering what strike me now as outmoded views of professional learning, carrying over from decades of brick-and-mortar experiences. Maybe, in the virtual world, it's okay to be partially engaged sometimes, to drift in and out, contributing what I can when I can, rather than being fully invested in each of these communities. Face-to-face settings would frown on that, I suspect, while online venues may actually thrive on the flux of participants. (Take that, fear of missing out!)

The Observation
Writing and speaking may be related, but they feel worlds apart for me right now. Writing lands in my comfort zone, as evidenced by how this blogging habit is sticking and the facility I've felt navigating Twitter over the past year. In comparison to writing, speaking as a professional outlet proves itchily uncomfortable for me, highlighted by some Voxer dabbling today. I understand why. I'm at ease massaging writing until it says what I want to say and I deem it ready for an audience. In comparison, speaking feels like the ultimate first draft, words sent to the audience that can't be snatched back. That plants another question in my mind, one that will bear on my learning going forward as well as my interactions with students: "To what extent should I play to my perceived strengths versus stretch my envelope of expression?"


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Towards a classroom vision - #cyberPD

I appreciate the do-it-yourself ethos that Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts spread in DIY Literacy. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better first step for teaching reading or writing moves than what they advise on page 31: "Try to perform the skill yourself, as an adult, for a few minutes... Step back. Study what you did. Name how you did what you did." I'm all for seeking that space as often as possible: hip deep in a creative mess, noticing what's working and what's not. (Pause for self-awareness: like right now, hashing out this reflection.)

While I'm confident that process will continue fueling my literacy growth, what about my students? Team Roberts puts that crux question this way: "Are the teaching tools I offer my kids really helping them to grow?" (2) And that's what got me thinking beyond DIY. The classroom I'm envisioning in 2016-17 can't stop with each learner doing it themselves; we need a collaborative spirit of doing it ourselves, or DIO. For starters, that means robust feedback loops, willing cooperation, real and virtual mentors, generous sharing, plus open eyes and ears that can blend criticism with empathy. That's a classroom culture coming into clearer focus for me. While I also know I bear professional responsibility for tracking students' growth, I'm aiming to have students increasingly articulate their progress (along with lingering areas of challenge) themselves. Those words can spring from internal reflections as well as audience observations, taken to heart.

The roles to which I aspire in this environment: noticer, listener, question asker, connector, inviter, catalyst. I will succeed when I equip students with tools that either open doors or remove obstacles along their paths to becoming more literate citizens. Those tools, I suspect, do not offer unbridled good. Even as Team Roberts argues, "The tools in our lives improve our lives. They save us energy, time, and struggle," (3) I know those savings are never guaranteed. Not every tool is right for everyone, so choose purposefully, embrace trial and error, and reflect often on what to champion versus what to discard. Those, too, are processes I can demonstrate with my students and capture in teaching charts, demonstration notebook entries, micro-progressions, and bookmarks.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

ISTE bits #3

Here's to inertia. I figure best to collect these keepers tonight from my last day at ISTE 2016, rather than risk coming to rest tomorrow and not getting going again for a while. That said, this list from my Wednesday wanderings around the Colorado Convention Center is stopping at nine.

  • Sketchnoting freshened up my attitude about note-taking. It falls under the umbrella of 'moments to learn, lifetime to master.' (Or about a year to master if you're Sylvia Duckworth!) Fortunately, she's shared resources to guide the rest of us. Appropriately, Kathy Schrock has also covered sketchnoting in her Guide to Everything.
  • Rob Furman crystallized an issue that's been nibbling, unspoken, at the edges of my brain. Think about how much media saturates our students' lives and, for most of them, how little of that carries information about good things to read. Bottom line: I need to book talk more. More importantly, I can create structures that encourage students to talk more about what they're reading and broadcast that talk to the widest possible audience.
  • Furman also shared two new-to-me resources: the self-explanatory Skype an author network and Countable for distilling what's going on in the federal government -- whether for our own education or for sparking student analysis, discussion, debate, and even action. (Is that Ruha Benjamin's voice I hear haunting me, asking, “How do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation?”)
  • Ruth Okoye and Karen Streeter provided a practical high-level view of coaching, rich with resources. Their picture painted eight essential coaching traits, and they said an effective coach must fire on at least six of these cylinders: communication chops, work ethic, leadership drive, entrepeneurial ethic, organization/planning, technical know-how, instruction ability, interpersonal skills.
  • Okoye and Streeter then dove into the nitty-gritty of matching coaching styles to learner types. Find the details (and other goodies) here on slides 10-22.
  • Noah Geisel and his conspirators in Aurora,CO are ambitious badgers, envisioning student credentialing on a vast scale and starting to roll it out. To learn more, start here and explore. I'm wondering to what degree badging at its best is an extension of standards-based grading practices at their best. Perhaps without the baggage of, you know, grades!
  • After listening to Michelle Cordy's closing keynote, I'm hugging the word 'stewardship' close. She offered it as a term that's increasingly replacing 'disruption' for her in education spheres.
  • Cordy's vignette about eye charts and how they embed a story in their design made my jaw subtly drop. Changing the format changes that story and, in the process, us. This article shares the 2010 research about psychology's pervasive influence. Makes me wonder: How can I design better? How can I be savvy about pitfalls in how tech designs function?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ISTE bits #2

The weekly Slice of Life blogging challenge coincides with my professional-learning binge at ISTE 2016. Let's cut two birds with one slice, so to speak. Here's a Top 10 list of my Tuesday take-aways:

  • Ruha Benjamin encouraged me to check out Chris Emdin's work. Better late than never, think I will.
  • Benjamin also asked, “How do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation?” I suspect I may keep trying to answer that question for the rest of my teaching life.
  • Michael Fricano introduced me to this GDoc add-on: Highlight Tool, which offers sorting functionality that's different from just re-formatting text color.
  • And this one, which works from GSheets as an intriguing way to bulk analyze student writing in a GDoc and email feedback: Essay Metrics.
  • And this one (also GSHeets-based): Add Reminders. My nascent idea is to suggest students try this for planting proactive planning reminders as a virtual timeline for genius-hour projects.
  • Jackie Patanio made me rethink visual prompts for writing. She shared this nugget: Have students take a selfie that makes a meaningful statement. To that, I'm thinking of asking them to write about what they did and why. (Perhaps record as audio to accompany their photo?)
  • Jason Ohler touted the power of teachers who are "door openers." He said, “No matter how open-minded you are, you’re still [as an adult] a gatekeeper." My refined aim in working with students: Open gates early and often!
  • Ohler also got me thinking more cogently about iterations of the WWW and how those trends might bend education. More on that here.
  • Pernille Ripp pointed me to the Yarn podcast for interviews with authors that reveal process insights to listen to and learn from with students.
  • Ripp also contributed another line to my forever-in-process job description: "figure out what each child needs and make sure they have it." Like identifying gates impeding their progress and what we might try next? Simple. Almost.



Monday, June 27, 2016

ISTE bits #1

Who doesn't like a Top 10 list? Here are favorite take-aways (in no particular order) from my Monday at ISTE 2016 .

  • Chris Lehman, Maggie Roberts, and Kristin Ziemke helped me see writing differently. When we write our stories, we construct our identity; we're not just dumping information. Micro-writing affords more chances for identity-driven writing, compared to traditional piece-driven full-length writing.
  • Stephen W. Anderson shared that live and archived webinars on numerous pedagogical topics live at edweb.net.
  • Tom Whitby and Stephen W. Anderson are involved in edchatinteractive.org -- more webinars, but ones that have a two-way dynamic, rather than just one direction for information.
  • Flocabulary sows ear worms for learning advantage, though at a price.
  • Angela Maiers delivered her cri de coeur: "You are a genius, and the world needs your contribution." Then she asked, "Do you believe it? Do your students?" Those two questions stick with me, niggling at my brain.
  • Google drawing mouse shortcut from Katie Diebold: Ctrl-click an object, and you'll be able to drag a copy of the object elsewhere on the canvas.
  • The proliferation of comments and replies responding to online content provides unprecedented opportunities for students to examine the architecture of polite and impolite discourse. From there, Maggie Roberts asked, why not have writers emulate the former and revise the latter?
  • Anchor charts, according to Kristin Ziemke, serve as great ways to crystallize writing observations: What have we seen before? What do we know? What's new?
  • Giving feedback in a Google doc? Katie Diebold and Jill Heaton recommend, in Suggesting mode, populating Preferences with canned shortcuts to most frequent comments. Here's how.
  • Blogs belong in professional reading, Tom Whitby said. He pointed the audience to teach.com/teach100 to browse ranked offerings for reading-list ideas.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On censorship & sensitive topics in middle-grade lit

I followed with interest the recent challenges stirred by author Kate Messner's new novel, The Seventh Wish, and I appreciated the dialogue she fostered via her blog. Wanting to form my own judgments, I read her book for myself. I followed it -- spontaneously -- with two other recent middle-grade titles: Pax by Sara Pennypacker and When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin. Now, I've got a lot on my mind, which I'll attempt to offload here by re-visiting each text. (No spoilers, but perhaps some reveals; read on at your own peril...)

The Seventh Wish, among a host of ingredients not the least of which is a magical fish, broaches the topic of heroin abuse. The passage below drops that bombshell on the 12-year-old narrator, Charlie Brennan. Midway through the story on pages 102-3, Charlie learns that her 18-year-old sister Abby has been using, a daunting iceberg's tip:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).
Arguments about the book (and Messner's presence as a visiting author sharing her book in schools) revolve around questions like: At what age should readers confront addiction as portrayed here fictionally? Should librarians invite the conversation by adding the book to their collections, or should they insulate readers from this ugliness until some point in the future? These questions cannot be answered definitively, though I see value in negotiating the terrain in more nuanced ways than age- or grade-level suggestions mustered by publishers and booksellers. Bloomsbury, which published The Seventh Wish, pegs it as middle grade; Amazon recommends it for grades 4-6; Barnes & Noble's site suggests ages 8-12. What feels more definitive is that heroin use is on the rise, especially among age groups that would encompass older siblings and other family of the presumed audience for The Seventh Wish. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can tell you more about that

Of course, heroin is not the only threatening iceberg out there. My next summer-reading book, Pax, brought me closer to the personal tolls of war. This exploration is simultaneously a subplot and integral to the tale of the bond between a young boy (Peter) and the pet fox (Pax) he must abandon when the story opens. Having later run away to reunite with Pax, Peter ends up in the care of Vola, a discharged soldier trying to cope with inescapable physical and emotional damage, as she starts to reveal to Peter here on pages 128-9:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

Like addiction is a fact of life for many, so too is military service. I don't mean to equate them; I'm looking at them as complicated issues that have far-reaching ramifications for society ranging from personal to communal to national to global. When should young readers explore them? When shouldn't they? While the overall veterans' population has shrunk in the last 30 years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of soldiers who live with service-connected disabilities has skyrocketed. That toll merits attention and response, in both fact and fiction.

My third recent read was When Friendship Followed Me Home. Like Pax, one focus here is on the connection between animal and boy. Seventh-grader Ben Coffin adopts a dog he eventually names Flip. Ben is a foster child who ends up switching homes for a reason that I won't share here. One of Ben's new guardians is a man named Leo, and the author drops clues that Leo is an alcoholic, as in this passage on page 120:

Hint: Click to enlarge or try keyboard shortcut Ctrl + (Ctrl - to shrink).

As with the two prior titles, this issue is not the emphasis here. It's a complication, feeding the rising action, adding depth and intensity to the characters' conflicts. It flares unpredictably, shockingly, even violently. It also reflects life at a time when alcohol use remains prevalent as statistics from the National Institute of Health show.

Messner, Pennypacker, and Griffin do not hide from controversial topics. Nor do they flaunt them or dwell on them in ways that feel detrimental to young readers. Should families have the ultimate say in what their children do or don't read? Absolutely. At the same time, should schools and libraries rely on the professional judgment of their staff to provide the widest possible range of reading opportunities from which students and families can select? I believe so.

With books like these that can plausibly be picked up by students from mid-elementary through at least the end of middle school, how might we proceed as a community of readers? I'd argue: Keep talking with each other, for starters. Parents with children; parents with teachers or librarians; teachers or librarians with students; readers with authors. Personalize the conversations to make them matter because there are no blanket reading levels or labels of age-appropriateness or other gatekeepers that will absolve us from these messier interactions.

"To read or not to read?" will always be the question. As for the answer... Leo from When Friendship Followed Me Home tells his significant other, Jeanie, "It's all too much. Too many moving parts. I like it simple." Her reply: "Everybody does, Leo. It just isn't, okay?" (138)

Works cited

Griffin, Paul. When Friendship Followed Me Home. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Messner, Kate. The Seventh Wish. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Pennypacker, Sara. Pax. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembrance of comic past

Several of my formative reading experiences growing up were comic books, and I still dabble in the format nowadays. (I'm part way through Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.) Still toting that deep-seated experience, I welcomed an invitation from Pop Culture Classroom to attend the first day of Denver's fifth annual Comic Con last week. I learned about (and marveled at) cosplay; I reconnected with NaNoWriMo; I listened to comic-book luminary Jim Shooter; and I took away reading suggestions and teaching ideas for my classroom.

One of the latter came from Illinois teacher Eric Kallenborn, who demonstrated the simple, ingenious approach of using comics with empty word bubbles to inspire student-writers' words. The technique scaffolds experimentation with tone and voice when students try multiple drafts in different registers using the same visual frame.

The wordless panels with which we practiced brought back a vivid memory from a previous reading life. It's 1984 (back when Jim Shooter, coincidentally, was Marvel's editor in chief). I'm splayed on a friend's bedroom floor, and we're surrounded by a scatter of comic books. He flips me the latest G.I. Joe, issue #21. Titled "Silent Interlude," it broke with convention by telling the whole story via action and reaction, not a single word bubble. My eyes got wide as I read; I might've stopped breathing. This recollection sent me scrambling today to the Internet where I found this augmented version. My take-away: Comics have staying power and a place in my classroom as part of literacy's pantheon.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flying sauces

As I've scribbled here before, I like to cook. My approach in the kitchen swings from improvisational and intuitive to cookbook digging and implementing, the latter fueling the former. During my current summer-reading binge, I scarfed down Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady. It's a delightfully narrative book. I also enjoyed how the author scatters insightful nuggets of why amid all the what and how. My biggest take-away, though: the alchemy of sauces.

Picture a humble bowl of fruit and plain yogurt (perhaps less humble when bulked up overnight into pudding with chia seeds, as O'Brady directs). Drizzle that with what she calls "Golden Honey Elixir" and, next thing you know, you'll be hijacking Shakespeare. Because: The sauce's the thing that makes the dish sing.

For the elixir, stir these ingredients together and let them hang out for at least 30 minutes: 3/4 cup honey, 3 tbs grated ginger, 2 tbs cider vinegar, zest of 1 lemon, 1 tbs + 1 tsp turmeric, 1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Let's keep the word play and recipe sharing going with a second UFO - Unexpectedly Flavorful Object! This sauce, O'Brady ribbons over fried chicken, which she evocatively calls "bee-stung." I went off label and glazed grilled pork chops with its sweet-spicy goodness.

For this condiment, combine 3 tbs butter with 3 tbs honey in a small pot over low heat. When that melts together, stir in 2 tbs Korean pepper paste (gochujang - trickier to procure, but if there's an Asian market in your town, you're set). Add to the mix 1 more tsp of heat (O'Brady touts a Korean pepper powder called gochugaru; I used cayenne, which she offered as an alternative) and 1/2 clove of garlic (O'Brady says grated; I minced and - gasp - used a whole clove, albeit a small one). Pour this syrupy concoction over the meat, and happiness ensues.

In these recipes and others, O'Brady reminded me of sauces' heady magic to transform what lies beneath. I see a metaphor to apply when wearing my other hat as teacher designing lessons, but that's a topic for a different blog entry. Mean time, if you're looking for kitchen inspiration, check out Seven Spoons -- itself a blog as well as a book.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Serious summer-reading gratitude

One silver lining of being on the mend from knee surgery (there have been several, surprisingly) is a windfall of reading time. Among the titles I finished: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, a contemporary young adult novel set in Tennessee. One of the three leads is high-school senior Travis Bohannon who obsessively reads the Bloodfall series, a riff on Game of Thrones.

Later in the novel (mild spoiler alert!), Travis' friend Lydia arranges for him to meet the Bloodfall author, G.M. Pennington. The 'G' is for Gary; the rest is a pen name. Gary and Travis hit it right off, and I want to share a slice of their dialogue. Over ice cream, Gary asks:
"Are you a writer, Travis?"
"Oh no."
"Why not?"
"I mean... I can't write."
"Well, have you ever tried?"
"No."
"Then of course you can't! Writing is something you can learn only by doing. To become a writer, you need an imagination, which you clearly have. You need to read books, which you clearly do. And you need to write, which you don't yet do, but should." (221)
Zentner crafts a short, sharp sentence to show how Gary's advice transforms Travis: "Exuberant purpose filled him" (224). Those are words I've already felt proud to wear on my best days as a teacher. The same words now thrill me like Travis, freighted with imagination and books, eager to offload more in writing -- as I've begun to do these last five months thanks to Two Writing Teachers and...

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Not like riding a bicycle

When my legs hurt, I say: "Shut up legs! Do what I tell you to do!” 
--Jens Voigt, German cyclist and former professional racer

After writing last week about being in pieces, my body and mind at loggerheads in the aftermath of knee surgery, today I sit on a bicycle for the first time in several weeks. The bicycle is stationary; I am in physical therapy.

In my new worldview, this connotes progress. (This is the same worldview where fetching the mail feels like 40 days wandering the desert. Needless to say, I now take new pleasure in pushing small envelopes.) Progress here means completing one full pedal stroke after several false starts and even more backwards rotations, which (the physical therapist assures me) are actually easier. The crux move is at the top of the pedal stroke; get past that, and the indoor world becomes one's cycling oyster. My slow rotation slows even further as my repaired knee approaches the pedaling apex for at least the fifth time. I feel pinching, either my reconstructed ligament bumping against its own envelope or swelling and scar tissue impinging on the action. For a split second, I wince and wonder if I should keep going; then my knee is over the top and on its way.


I go 30 more seconds, which leaves me in a clammy sweat. Never has so little felt so good. Turns out riding a bicycle is not necessarily as easy as riding a bicycle, not when my left leg has the fortitude of a droopy noodle.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I fall to pieces

I've always thought of my consciousness as a pea, my body as a pod -- which, I suppose, makes me pea-brained. Those metaphors, I find increasingly wonky because they fail to express the seamless connection between mental and physical me. I think; my body does; my body feels; I feel. Turns out, though, the linkage is more tenuous than I presumed.

My first sign of this came last Wednesday. I had my inaugural experience with general anesthesia's power to shut off mental me. Here today, gone tomorrow. Except, instead of days, the switch flipped in just a minute or two. ("Light" anesthetic they called it, which struck me as ironic since I spent almost our entire encounter in the dark.) One moment, a voice behind me said, "We're giving you a mild sedative;" the next moment I registered was nearly three hours later, having missed a litany of cutting, drilling, poking, and stitching. My body did -- or was done to -- plenty; I felt nothing. A new experience of not experiencing.

Then, yesterday, I debuted in physical therapy. The therapist pointed to my right leg, the working one of the two stretched before me. "I want you to fire your quad," she said. I did, the muscle clenching and tugging my kneecap slightly up. "That's it," she said. "Now try that with the left one." I did, try that is, but nothing happened. I looked at the left knee, sent what had historically been appropriate brain impulses, and neither muscle nor bone quivered. Another new experience: my usual calls were not going through. The therapist assured me this was normal. She connected several patches from an electric stimulation apparatus to my quad and proceeded essentially to jump-start me.

Chemicals severing my consciousness from my body? I'd be disingenuous to say that had never happened before, but not to this degree. Electricity finishing the bodily job my consciousness wasn't fully up for? Humbling. "O brave new world that has such a piecemeal person in it," I think to myself, tempest-tossed.