Tag Archives: education

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

An open letter to the Committee

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I am a conservative. I believe in limited government, lower taxes, and fiduciary accountability at every level of government. I am pleased and proud to see fellow Georgians Dr. Tom Price and Dr. Sonny Purdue as cabinet nominees for President Trump’s cabinet.

Having said that, as a teacher of more than 20 years with three children who have been in the public schools of both California and Georgia, I am APPALLED at the choice of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She may be smart, but she has no intimate experience with public schools at any point in her life or the life of her family. She has no education experience, no qualifications in her own education, and no connection to teachers or their students. How can this possibly be acceptable?

I have said for years that anyone with any influence in educational policy should be required to teach in a public school one day every year. Not observe. Teach. From preparing lesson plans that meet local, state, and national mandates to teaching the classes while ensuring all the administrative tasks are done correctly, balancing the individual needs of 35 students without assistance, and finding 90 seconds to eat lunch or even find the restroom. To have a Secretary of Education who has never spent any time in a public school as student, teacher, aide, cafeteria worker, or administrator tells the American people that the US government is no longer committed to the form of education promoted by our founding fathers.

Noah Webster wrote, “It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which my not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country” (On the Education of Youth in America). The current dissatisfaction with the state of the public school system has already broken that trust in “just and liberal ideas of government” especially when those with power over school policies do not trust their own system enough to be part of that school community. It is madness to think someone without any connection to the actual people in the actual public schools is in a position to drive policy.

Yes, there are serious problems in many public schools. I am currently working on a PhD in Teaching and Learning in order to find ways to improve schools both for students and their families and for teachers. Educators have ideas and answers that research demonstrates is effective both in teaching subject matter and developing character. The Secretary of Education must be someone who understands more than budgets or fundraising or donations. The Secretary of Education must understand the hearts of teachers who teach, not for money or power (for there is none), but out of a passion to teach children how to learn and how to love learning. He or she must be intimately involved with children who spend their days in closed classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, which ultimately measure nothing significant. A Secretary of Education must understand the needs of all students, from the youngest to the oldest, from the most-severely disabled to the most advanced. Our public school system must consider English Language Learners, multiple cultures, new literacies, technology, and diverse families. Wealthy, poor, working class, middle-class, and homeless students all have a place in public schools. The person best able to understand and meet those needs is someone who has lived the experiences of the public schools personally. Mrs. DeVos is not that person.

 

Please vote against her confirmation.

Whitman Wednesday

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whitmanwed

Feel free to play!!!  Most of the images I use are taken with my phone and edited in an app called Pixlr.  Upload to Twitter and/or Instagram with the hashtag #whitmanwednesday.

Use the project in your classroom to show your students how to connect words and images in meaningful ways. Talk about why the images they choose work with the words they’ve selected. Talk about color and line and vision. There is always room for art in English Language Arts (or any other subject, for that matter).

Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Homeschool, Hybrid school, and making opportunities

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Homeschool, Hybrid school, and making opportunities

Learning at home has been part of education since the beginning of civilization.  As far back as ancient Greece, only the elite went to schools while most children received instruction to some extent at home. Ancient Romans valued literacy, and even the poor learned to read and write  so that they could participate in the economy. The Jewish people of the Middle East of the first century established schools for all children to age 13, after which only the brightest were able to study under a master teacher.

By the Middle Ages, education became something only for the very wealthy or the clergy. The Renaissance brought about new interest in formal education, and the Reformation brought about the first hints of a universal and public education for children of all income levels.  A decline in the 17th and 18th century was followed by a resurgence of philosophy and epistemology that began with Johann Comenius, progressed through John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, and expanded with Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster in the New World.

The cycle of education trends continued through the illiteracy of child laborers during the Industrial Revolution that preceded the advent of the first Kindergarten by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Harbart developed and idea of teacher/curriculum centrality of education, while Montessori followed with more child-centered pedagogies.

As the cycles commenced, there was always a segment of the population that considered itself independently taught. Whether this was the surreptitious education of girls or the secret teaching to slaves, home school has been part of education, either underground or in public.

One of the major criticisms of the home school movement has been the isolation of the students. Perhaps this was legitimate concern at one time, but that is no longer the norm. There are, and probably always will be, families who choose homeschooling in order to prevent their children from interacting with the world beyond the home, but today, the resources available to home school families ensure interaction with other students of multiple ages in multiple venues. Museums, farms, galleries, aquariums and other attraction offer group rates for home school groups, and many offer special programs designed for students who have special interests in specific topics.

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This prima ballerina chose homeschool – hybrid education in order to pursue dance.

Some parents choose to home school because their children excel in sport or dance or competitive ventures that preclude attendance in a traditional school setting. These students are far from isolated; in fact many of them have connections with their peers in multiple geographic locations and from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

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Studying granite. Home schooled sisters explore a large monolith without time constraints.

For those home schooled students who are at risk for isolation because of location, health, or other inhibiting factors, the internet offers a way to connect without leaving home. There are massive open online courses and a multitude of derivatives that allow teens to connect with one another on line and form friendships. Short term events like #walkmyworld and #digiwrimo allow parents and students to participate in national and international forums without lengthy commitments. Sites like Youth Voices and KQED Do Now allow students to write about important issues from politics to social justice and interact and collaborate with other students without regard to location, school schedules, or test materials.  This interaction allows students to engage in meaningful collaboration which is sometimes missing in the traditional classroom.

In addition to the asynchronous opportunities, there are a number of accredited hybrid schools that allow students to meet in a traditional setting one or two days a week and work independently the other days. This affords the synchronous learning opportunities to supplement the at home learning. Students are able to collaborate face to face, participate in class discussions, and connect with each other as well as with a teacher who can come alongside parents. In many cases these students are fully independent; their parents support, but do not instruct.

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Hybrid school students collaborate on a project in two spaces: the classroom and online.

These schools also allow for online collaboration. Projects can be worked on both online and in the classroom, mimicking the pattern of projects in the business world. This benefits students as they learn the essentials of communicating in multiple modes.

I have taught in multiple venues and I see the affordances and constraints of both the traditional classroom, the hybrid school, and homeschooling. The most important element is keeping the needs of the students at the forefront, no matter what the educational model may be.

 

 

 

 

 

My gratitude to Robert Guisepe at http://history-world.org/history_of_education.htm for the background information!

The Leftovers

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At a recent event I had the joy of reintroducing Kindergarten activities to a group of educators. It was a simple project, really. With magazines, calendars, and books (yes, BOOKS) in hand, these very serious adults took on the task of cutting and ripping and tearing pieces in order to create a new piece of artwork. The fancy term, of course, is remix. It is a buzzword of this digital literacy age we’re in, and really an important way of thinking critically and imaginatively. Dr. Donna Alvermann and UGA doctoral candidate Crystal Beach set the stage for this particular presentation two years ago with their Becoming 3lectric project that set out to study remix in the digital space. The three of us collaborated on this event and presented together.

The energy in the room resonated with laughter and chatter – just as it should for a group of adults exploring their inner children. They shared their creations and admired each others’ work and the stories that accompanied them.

At the end of the session one participant struggled with how to connect everything together in her own mind relating to her students, her classes, and her own realities. She enjoyed the project itself because it was a fun release in an information heavy conference, but the rationale for its importance eluded her. In her attempt to make me understand, she pointed to the discarded remnants of the pages she didn’t use and said, “But what about the leftovers?”

The leftovers. I was in the process of cleaning the room for the next session coming in, but her question stopped me cold. Maybe it was the moment, but I suddenly thought, not so much about the leftover materials, but about the leftovers. The materials, after all, were outdated and used things that were already bound for the refuse bin, so the paper scraps and bits were not the actual issue, at least not in my mind.

No, what struck me was that, in my enthusiasm for a hands-on fun learning experience, I neglected to fully engage a whole segment of the audience: those who are uncomfortable with the messiness of learning unless they understand the rational behind it. Most people are game to try new things if they know why it matters. Some people don’t need to know why before they jump in with total abandon. And others, like myself, enjoy the process of constructing meaning from the exercise that makes sense with our own points of view. Most of the people who chose to attend this session fit one of these three categories, but there was a under-represented fourth group that deserved a better answer that I was unprepared to give.Virtureal

So, why do this project and how does it fit into the real world of the English Language Arts classroom?  I think one reason is the connections we make between others who wander the planet with us. When we remix work done by others into something new, we insert our lives into theirs and we become co-constructors of meaning and relationship even though the players may never meet.

What do we know based on this interaction? Maybe knowing is in the experience of mingling our thoughts with the ideas of others. Dewey wrote about the experimental practice of knowing and certainly remix is active experiment. What do we learn about ourselves, our identities, and maybe our insecurities through a process of remix? Are we making a statement that perhaps our version of other people’s work is superior? Or do we unveil our own uncertainties about our own contributions to the dialogue around us?

This is a discussion worth having, particularly as paradigms about education and knowing shift under our feet. Once education focused on survival skills and community support. It was practical, ensuring students could read and write enough to be considered literate, and to be able to function sufficiently in mathematics to be a contributor to a local economy. More recently the standardized multiple choice test became the dominant measure of knowing something.  This policy, long criticized by classroom teachers, now faces refinement and no one is quite sure yet what the next step will look like. But educators still hold to the heart of their passion: teaching students, not to take tests, but to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Remix may not change the world, but it can change a child in a classroom who is given the freedom and opportunity to explore him/herself by interacting with the words and art of those who have gone before.

And that’s why it matters. Not just because it’s fun, but because the opportunity for reflection and connection creates meaning between generations and people and cultures. Because, while there may be students who know who they are and don’t mind messy exploration, there are others who identify more with the leftover scraps than the whole pieces. I created this piece with the same scraps that had so bewildered our participant.  The purpose may not always be obvious, but it is present.

There are no leftovers; only beauty waiting to be discovered.

There are no leftovers; only beauty waiting to be discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

References

Dewey, J. (1984). The play of ideas. In J.A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey, the later works. Volume 4: 1929,  The quest for certainty. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ganzel, B. (2007).  Education in rural America. Retrieved from http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/life_12.html

 

 

 

 

 

Identity formation and Walking

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I wrote this on Medium and thought I’d share here as well.

We live in a connected world. That said, we seem to be more isolated than ever before. There are coffee shops that promote face to face conversation by eliminating wifi and informal games that require groups in restaurants to put down their mobile devices (because the handheld technologies are far more than phones these days) or foot the bill for the entire party. Ray Bradbury saw it coming and wrote about it (remember Mildred’s “seashells” from Fahrenheit 451?)

The challenge for those of us who choose to embrace the digital spaces is to create authentic connections with people across time, distance, and cultural differences. For me, it’s one of the most exciting things about #walkmyworld. Because it is designed to be a fun collaboration of identities around learning events, the stress level for perfection is reduced. Even though the learning events include content instruction that is easily augmented in particular classrooms, the tone is light and engaging, so the threat level is low. People from around the world come to play, and it becomes a true multi-cultural experience among like minded people of all ages. There are elementary and secondary students, graduate students, pre-service teachers, and professors all involved, but no one is an expert. Instead, all participants are learning and sharing together in a virtual community of equals.

Since this is my third year as part of Walk My World, I think I have a sense of what to expect: expect the unexpected. Unexpected learning, unexpected friendships, and unexpected glimpses into a digital identity still in formation and ever evolving. This is how a connected world can work: people being authentic, sharing an experience, and learning how to walk together.

Walk My World

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It’s here! It’s time!

Walk My World begins its third iteration this week. I have helped craft the learning events and I think this will be the best year ever.

Join the fun here! The first week is all about getting set, so jump right in!

 

Wasteland

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This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.

Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire

I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month  underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.

Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.

 

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds  of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.

Whistling: A #DiGiWriMo Collaborative Mystery

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DiGiWriMo gave me a great excuse to try something new with my students. Because I teach three very distinct classes, I was intrigued by the idea of a collaborate project across all three. One class is all online. One is face-to-face, and the third is a hybrid of the two. I intend to write up the process and how it worked, but for now, here is the story they wrote, as they left it:

 

“A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” Sharon said that to me a million times, and now I can’t believe she’s gone. It’s funny how little things can turn into the things you remember the most. It isn’t the cases we solved together. It’s the inside stories, like her silly quotes, that nobody understands except for me. People don’t know why I’m smiling at when I look at her picture. They think I’m crazy but they don’t understand our little private jokes about pretty much everything under the sun. Like how she used to make fun of me when I ordered the Double Sumo meal at our regular Tao Min lunches. “Know your limits,” she would say. And I’d laugh and order it anyway. And take half of it home.

My reminiscent thoughts are interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. “Already miss her?” says the deep voice behind me. As I turn away from her picture, I see Lieutenant Sam Marshall, the lead detective on Sharon’s murder case. He hands me an envelope. “This is for later. Not today. But later, when you’re ready.” I peek inside and see photos, presumably from the scene where Sharon died in a bizarre head-on collision with the wall near the restaurant we spent most of our shift lunches. “Thanks,” I mutter. And I tuck the envelope in my jacket pocket.

After the funeral, I walk into my bedroom and watch my coat fall limp on the bed frame. I grudgingly gather the will to open the thin envelope and dump the contents on the bed. Pictures scatter. A car, a deployed and shriveled airbag, trunk slightly ajar, the concrete wall scarred from the drag of the driver’s side door, damage that indicated how my partner died. There are other random marks on the wall, but that’s not unusual in this part of town. Graffiti is pretty common. I’m relieved to see no pictures of Sharon’s body.

 

Ring. Ring. I wake up and realize I’ve slept in the clothes I wore to the memorial. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to PB gas station on Main and Truman. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” I report back, “I need a shower and my body calls for a cup of coffee before I head out. If there are officers already there, they can wait another ten minutes.”

As I pull up the yellow crime scene tape over my head, I scan the scene. I see a body hanging down from the rafters with a pool of blood on floor beneath his feet. At the moment the medical examiner’s team is preparing to take the body down. I look around. The place is a mess, there was obviously a struggle. “Eddie,” I hear a solemn voice. “Come look at this.” I walk over to Detective Marshall, who is holding a camera and pointing at a paper near the cash register. I look at the counter and see a sheet of paper with blots of red. “What in the world. What do you think this is?” I say. Marshall replies, “I don’t know. It reminds me of the blood stains on the wall where Sharon… uh…” What blood stains? I don’t remember anything but graffitti on the wall at Sharon’s crime scene. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the case at hand.

Detective Marshall snaps more pictures, so I make my way around to the corpse, now on the floor. He looks familiar – like I should know who it is. The medical team extracts an SD card from his mouth and places it in an evidence bag. “Take a look at this.” I’m handed the plastic bag and figure this needs to be brought to the station to find out what is on it.

I start the engine of my car and begin heading to the station. How did I miss the blood with the graffitti? I must have been more tired than I thought. I resolve to look again when I get home. First things first: what is on this card and why was it forced between the victim’s back molars?

 

The data comes back from the lab. All this information looks familiar. I remember this case. It was one that Sharon and I worked together on a few years back. The dead guy was Luis Sanchez.He had strangled one of our best coder/analysts just as we were about to break open a drug ring in town. We had Sanchez, dead to rights, until some careless idiot in the clerk’s office misfiled some pertinent paperwork. The judge had to let Sanchez off. We were furious.

As I am waiting for the pictures to come back from the PB station, another call comes in over the scanner. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to Motel 23 on 23rd Street and Holyoke. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” Again? Two homicides in one day? Our town is pretty quiet, so this is weird. Once again, I head to my car.

This hotel is old. Not exactly a place I’d want to call home, but it’s a roof and a bed if you’re desperate. The first thing I cast my eyes on is a beat up truck, resting on the chock block that’s supposed to stop a car before it does any damage to the building. Nice thought. I look in the window and see the usual mess of a laborer, complete with empty bottle of Mountain Dew…healthy.

I am greeted by Detective Marshall, camera in hand. “You might want to look at this. It’s kinda creepy.” For Marshall to call something creepy is creepy itself. It must be bad. I walk into the room and see a trail of blood drops running around the bed that leads to the contorted body of Steve Lorne.  I turn to Marshall, “What the heck?” Marshall shrugs and points to the television, illuminated by static. There I see it. More blood. I take a closer look and flash back to the earlier scene with the red marked paper. The marks seem to be similar – and definitely intentional.

“Do you have any pictures from this morning?” I say. Marshall and I walk to his car and open his laptop. He loads the pictures from his camera and we both look at the images. There is no doubt. The marks are exactly the same. “The one this morning turned out to be Sanchez’s blood,” Marshall tells me. “I’m betting this one is this guy’s. I’ll let you know the minute the labs come back.” Marshall prints out copies of both blood stains and hands them to me. “See if you can figure out what these mean” he says. I nod and head back to the station, pictures in hand, and my head spinning.

 

This dead guy is too familiar. It hits me then. Sharon and I worked this case a year ago when Lorne killed the owner of a Japanese restaurant across town. The restaurant was famous for its Fugu – and only the most daring diners would attempt to eat it because of its reputation as a killer dish. The place never recovered from the owner’s death and closed.

I decide to take a second look at that case. Number 10020023. 23. Same number as the motel. I figure it’s a coincidence and turn back to the photos.

I’m interrupted by a call from the lab. Evidently, the Mountain Dew bottle tested positive for tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in Fugu. Lorne must have been feeling the burn in his mouth and the confusion and muscle weakness that precedes death when he crashed. How he made it to his room, I’m not sure, but he couldn’t have lasted long once he got there. Gruesome way to die, if you ask me.

I pull up both case files to see what could link them together besides the fact that they were our – Sharon’s and mine – cases. And both killers got off scot-free. It hits me. The way they were killed–strangulation and Fugu poison. Some weird connection to the cases in front of me. And then the blood. Something in the back of my mind tells me I’m missing something huge. The killer has to know what cases Sharon and I have worked as well as have access to those case files. The only people who would have access to that information and who have been around long enough to know what cases Sharon and I have worked are Sharon and Detective Marshall. But Sharon is dead….

 

Two days later, I get a call informing me of another murder. On top of the three crime scenes the station is already overwhelmed with, the death of Frank Kelly is added to the list. Kelly’s case is one we all know too well because Kelly was the reason Sharon became a cop to begin with. He killed her cousin – the whole family, actually. Kelly left the house burning, all bodies inside except for Sharon’s cousin, Barbara whose body was never found. He had stabbed the rest of the family before burning the house. I was a new cop, then, so I only know the story from the reports I read and from what Sharon told me. Sharon was always driven to get a conviction for Kelly, but he managed to keep delaying trial. Good lawyers for him, but Sharon was angry at the system for letting Kelly go on with his life while her family suffered. Her primary motivation in law enforcement was to find justice for families of victims by good police work. She may have been a jokester about my eating habits, but she was dead serious about her job.

It only takes ten minutes to get to the apartment building in this case. A quick glance tells me that this is much more violent than the other two this week. Hanging from a fifth floor window is a guy – obviously dead based on the fact that it’s only his foot keeping his body from falling to the ground. I can see from the parking lot that there is something on the window.

I run up the stairs and by the time I get there, the medics have pulled the dead guy in. Sure enough, it’s Frank Kelly. I’d recognize his ugly face anywhere – even bloodied and swollen in death. I let the medics do their thing while I look around the room. I see Marshall with his camera and he waves me over.

“It’s another one,” he says, pointing at the window. Plain as day, I see the image and I suddenly feel nauseous.

“Marshall!” I say. “When did Sharon and I take that Psych course with all the Rorschach ink blot studies? Wasn’t that just a month or so ago?”

“Yeah, why?” Marshall looks confused, but smirks at the memory of all the complaining I did about having to do the stupid course.

I pull the pictures out of my pocket – when did I put them there? I sort through until I find the two blood marks and compare them to the one painted on the window. They’re all the same. I point this out to Marshall who tells me I’m seeing too much into it and that my mind’s playing tricks on me.

 

I looked back at Kelly’s body which the medics weren’t finished with yet. He looked like he took a beating and he was stabbed multiple times before he was hung out to dry. I thought back to the cases from a few days ago and Sharon’s case; they all had the blood blots to connect them, so they had to have the same killer. But either Kelly fought his murderer to his death or his murderer had some grudge against him and took it out on his body. Who could know these specific cases? No witnesses. No accomplices. I look over at Marshall again. Sharon and Marshall are the only ones who could have known about these specific cases and Sharon is dead, so that just leaves…

 

“Marshall,” I say, “I need to clear my head. I’m headed back to the station. Let me know if…” As I’m crossing the room my eye falls on the couch which is strangely normal-looking. On it is a book, open to reveal a highlighted sentence on page 43, “A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” The Tao of Pooh. I pick up the book by the corner and put it into an evidence bag and put it in my pocket. I have to think.

Once I got back to the station I make my way back to my office, stopping for a cup of coffee. Jack, one of our techs comes up and says, “Weird about the missing bodies.”  I just look at him.

“What missing bodies?”

“Well, isn’t this the guy who killed Sharon’s relatives? I remember that the cousin’s body was never found in that case. And then, of course, no one ever found Sharon’s body..er…um…right?” Apparently my face gave me away. They never found Sharon’s body? And never thought to mention that to me?

 

In my office, I take a deep breath and pull out the pictures from Sharon’s case. I glance through them looking for anything that might have been missed. When I get to the last one, I look more closely at the graffiti on the wall. And then I see it. A red Rorschach blot in the middle of the crazy mural of spray paint. How had I missed that before?  Upon noticing this I pull up the case (noticing that the case ends in 43 – another weird coincidence) on my computer. There is nothing about a body in the report.  “Jack was right!” I say it aloud, even though no one is in the office but me. I call Marshall and demand to know why he never told me that Sharon’s body was missing.

Marshall replies with “you never asked”. I could punch him, but know he probably wanted to keep me out of the loop because she was my partner. Evidence was one thing, but a missing body was another, I guess. In any case, now I have four Rorschach blots in blood, three cases Sharon and I worked together, and two missing bodies. Something doesn’t add up.

I keep staring at the four pictures until my eyes blur. I hear Sharon’s voice in my head laughing during the course we took. Being cops, we had a hard time taking it seriously, and we joked around a lot. The best joke was the day we were “analyzed” and Sharon came back with a “diagnosis” of “borderline psychotic with violent tendencies”. We laughed about that for days.

 

I shake the memory from my head and look out the window. I see a shadow passing by and I hear someone whistling, badly.  I could swear it is Sharon. I know her walk and her attitude better than anyone else. And Sharon’s fish-whistle quote was partly funny because she couldn’t whistle herself out of a paper bag. But it can’t be her – I’m seeing ghosts. I figure I need to get out of the office.

I decide to walk a little. There’s a park by the restaurant where we used to have lunch. I’m not hungry enough for a Double Sumo meal, but I figure the air will do me good, even though it’s getting dark. I look in the restaurant window at our old table, wondering how all these cases intersect. It’s obviously got to be the same killer, but why are all the bodies there except Sharon’s and her cousin’s? Why are the dead killers’ murders so obviously connected to their crimes?

My phone rings, but the number is “restricted”. When I click answer, the voice on the end stops me in my tracks.

“Hello Eddie.”

 

Contributing Authors:

Sawyer Stromwall, Lisa Kawamura, Connor Horne, Anna Laarhoven, Hudson Stromwall, Ted Ingram, Danny Glenos, Bri McGhee, Laney Hall, and Charity Campbell.