The Uplifting Power of Community

It can be all too easy to lose heart. There is so much wrong with the world one can quickly forget what’s right, but today I was reminded of the enormity of the good that still exists.

Organized by @1stcreamiatwin, a group of litter-picking, beach-cleaning, planet-loving people posted images of hearts to Instagram. The hearts, which were mostly made from litter, were created as a show of solidarity in support of @justgrabbits who works to inspire and unite us.

After marveling at each #welovejustgrabbits submission, I headed to the beach. As I walked, I felt the presence of these new friends. My heart overflowed with appreciation and the task of cleaning the shoreline was made a little bit easier knowing that I am not alone as I do my part to make our world a cleaner and more positive place.

From now on, whenever I begin to feel disheartened, I will reflect on the uplifting power of community and the love that connects us to each other and to the planet we all call home.

So far 36 uniquely beautiful hearts have been posted. Here are just a few:


Top row: @smartie_lids_on_the_beach; @woollybright; @emma_b_oakeley

Center row: @anna.kauffman; @janisselbyjones; @1stcremiatwin

Bottom row: @cleancoast_angel; @beauswalkies; @u2cstevo

Posted in Creating, Creativity, Environment, Instagram, Marine Debris, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Mystery Solved

Many mysteries wash up on the beach. A little over a year ago, I found a message in a bottle with a cryptic love note curled up inside, and on a foggy morning in April, I was surprised to discover a partial denture smiling up at me from the rocks.

I can’t help but wonder about the people behind the items I find, and I often make up stories about them as I walk, all the while wishing I knew what really happened.

A mystery I had always hoped to solve came to a resolution recently.

Because I have been cleaning the same stretch of coastline in Carlsbad several times a week for over three years, I have come to notice patterns. The type of refuse that washes up varies depending on the weather and the tides, but some things remain constant. Water bottles, bottle caps, straws, and balloons are common beach finds throughout the year.

In addition to everyday single use plastics, I have frequently found something unusual—small plastic sprockets. I actually made it a personal challenge to spot at least one every time I visited the beach because my clean up efforts just wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t have any to take home.


March 15, 2014

As my collection of sprockets grew, I became more and more curious about them. I was told that they were probably coming from sprinkler systems. The idea seemed plausible. I could imagine how sprinkler parts would enter the run off and end up at the ocean.

However, the sprockets continued to wash up, and I began to question this theory. Why were there so many and where were they coming from?

7F9D5EA4-FAC9-4A23-8340-EC1CDFEE8DFE 3

October 27, 2014

As time went on, the sprinkler explanation didn’t make sense any more, and I felt compelled to find an answer. I posted a photograph to Instagram and asked the network of beach cleaners who are active on Instagram to help me identify them.

FullSizeRender 21

December 8, 2015

I received several helpful responses. People suggested that they were aquarium filter media, plastic biodiscs, biofilm carriers, and wastewater treatment bacteria substrates. A few mentioned that sewage treatment plants use them, and another added that a sewage treatment plant was determined to be the cause of biofilters entering the ocean near where he lives.

Their answers led me to the water treatment plant located just east of the beach where I walk. Naturally, I assumed  it was the culprit. I called the plant to report what I was finding and spoke to an engineer who assured me that they do not use that type of biofilter. I was glad that they weren’t the source but felt frustrated that I didn’t have an answer.

FullSizeRender 23

June 5, 2016

In May, I posted another photo to Instagram and @justgrabbits responded with a comment: “When biofilters go rouge, geeze, Janis. Do you find a lot of these?” Then, Toby Brown, the man behind the @justgrabbits movement, messaged me on Facebook and suggested that I contact the local Waterkeeper or Coastkeeper organization.

I immediately contacted SD Coastkeeper, and it didn’t take long for me to hear back from Matt O’Malley, the Waterkeeper Legal and Policy Director for San Diego. He was interested in knowing more and sincerely wanted to help me solve the mystery.

In mid June, my husband and I met with Matt and gave him a handful of biofilters. He shared the information with the San Diego Regional Water Board, and they traced the biofilters to Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, a sea-bass hatchery located at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, CA.

On June 28, the Regional Water Control Board conducted an inspection. As a result, they issued a Staff Enforcement Letter and are holding the facility accountable for discharges that are polluting the Pacific Ocean.


July 26, 2016—A record breaking 24 biofilters were collected during one afternoon walk.

I am thrilled that this source of plastic pollution will be stopped and am gratified to know that my persistence led to a positive outcome. I expect to find fewer and fewer biofilters over time, but I will continue to clean the beach as often as I can because many more mysteries will be washing up.

I will never know the story behind the message in a bottle nor will I know how the dentures ended up in the beach, but this one important mystery has been solved with support from the planet-loving, beach-cleaning friends I have made through social media and thanks to my newfound friends at San Diego Coastkeeper.


To report pollution or water waste to SD Coastkeeper:

For information about how to have fun and “help pick up a bit” visit, Grabbits


Posted in #Litterati, Environment, Instagram, Marine Debris | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Making to Make a Difference

As I set out my containers filled with colorful beach plastic in preparation for the activity I had planned for the 3rd through 8th graders attending San Diego Area Writing Project’s Young Writers’ Camp in Cardiff, I stopped and noticed how beautiful it looked and reflected on the incongruity of the marine debris lined up in an elementary school corridor that would soon be filled with eager summer campers.


Marine debris collected from the beach in Carlsbad, CA

As the kids arrived, they noticed the colorful plastics and had questions before they even settled in. I introduced myself and shared what I do to make a difference as a teacher, avid beach cleaner, photographer, writer, and maker. I showed examples of my work and asked everyone to theorize about how some of the items could have ended up on the beach.

We discussed balloon bits, bucket handles, and bottle caps, and the wide-eyed campers expressed amazement while sharing their insights and observations. They were excited when they found something they recognized, and they even identified an object on my Circles within Circles piece for me. “It’s a water gun plug!” one of the campers exclaimed, and I was grateful to finally know. (I find them often but couldn’t figure out what they were.)

IMG_8607 2

Shovel Handles

FullSizeRender 14

Circles Within Circles (caps and lids)

After I showed them my Instagram account and my blog, I shared the work of my sister and her husband, Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang who are renowned beach plastic artists—and my inspiration. I shared their plastic arrays arranged by hue and included an image from their  Plastic Forever blog to highlight the point that making art and writing go hand-in-hand.


Chroma by Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang


From there, we segued into a deeper discussion about marine debris, and I played a video from Ocean Today’s Trash Talk series to enhance their understanding. Living in coastal San Diego, most were already aware of the problem of ocean pollution, and by a show of hands, a few had participated in beach clean-up events in the past. In addition, many have attended environmental assemblies at their schools where they may have seen the iconic image of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic or the picture of the turtle whose shell became deformed as it grew into the plastic six-pack ring wrapped around its middle.

Those images are shocking and cause one to think about the damage we are doing to the planet and its inhabitants, but research has shown that scare tactics aren’t the best way to inspire people to effect positive change . In an Environment360 interview about his book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes explains: “What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement.”

Knowing that scary images aren’t effective in motivating people, I want to engage students by sharing poignantly beautiful photographs and objects that draw them in and allow them to develop connections.


Balloon bits picked up off the beach in Carlsbad, CA.

By providing opportunities for students to talk about, work with, and write about the plastic debris, their connections grow even deeper. As their interest and insight develops, I am confident that they will find their own ways to make a difference based on hope—not fear. (I discuss how I remain hopeful while cleaning the beach in my blog post entitled What Is Hope? )

My ultimate goal is it to have an even greater positive impact by empowering young people to use their creativity to inform and inspire others. I want them to know that their classroom teachers aren’t the only people who are educators. They too can teach through their words and actions and through what they create and share with a wider audience.


To lead campers into writing and making, I shared examples from Young Writers and Photography Camp that I co-taught earlier in the summer. (A 25-minute center activity that I did with campers during that program was the seed that grew into this more fully developed presentation.)


trash is


After we discussed the endless possibilities for writing, I demonstrated the hands-on work they would be doing. I dumped a tub of plastic out on the floor and explained the connection between writing and making by sharing that just as one might revise a piece of writing one can revise a piece of art that’s in process too. Objects in a collage and words/phrases/sentences on a page can be added, deleted, and moved around as the artist/author develops and works to improves the piece.

Finally, campers headed outside and began arranging the plastic into pleasing compositions that they captured with the devices/cameras they brought from home. It probably goes without saying that they had fun working in pairs to lay out their designs.

They also enjoyed discussing the pieces of plastic as they placed them on their work surfaces. I heard exclamations of excitement as familiar objects were recognized, and I overheard a pair seriously negotiating the placement of a bottle cap. Someone held up a black cone-shaped object and was surprised by my explanation that it was an eel trap.


The eel trap is the cone-shaped object on the right-hand side of this image.

As they made their arrangements, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of their interactions with the material. The eye-catching plastic, as beautiful as it is, represents humanity’s failure to protect our natural resources; it exists in contrast to the fresh-faced innocence of the children who were creating with it—the embodiment of hope for a future in which we can and must do better.

Their final products were beautiful, intriguing…and fun! One of the creators of the “pink beach boy” and I discussed the fact that the image was both cool and not cool at the same time.  We laughed as we came to that realization, which reminded me that humor is another positive way to engage an audience when tackling difficult topics.


After campers finished collaborating on their designs, they grabbed their notebooks and began to write. Some drafted poems, while others crafted letters and stories. A couple of campers asked if they could write comic strips, and I exclaimed, ” Yes! A comic strip about marine debris. What a great idea!”

The trashy times

One of the campers in the 5th/6th group drafted a story about the life of one water bottle that eventually ends up in the recycling bin after going on quite an adventure, and an older camper in the 7th/8th grade group began working on a powerful piece about the urban jungle.

water bottle

Urban Jungle

Two girls in the 3rd/4th grade group who worked together to create their plastic collages wrote very different pieces. While one wrote a letter to the “government,”the other developed a poem:

Sea turtles and sharks
Dolphins and whales
Clams and mussels
Jellyfish and sea snails
Their lives are endangered by marine debris
and humans need to find a solution
So I am asking you please
When you go to the beach
Pick up some trash
So the creatures of the sea
Can live happy lives in peace


We had a few minutes for sharing in author’s chair before I left the campers with some final thoughts on making to make a difference. I explained that not everyone is as passionate about marine debris and cleaning beaches as I am. I challenged them to discover what that they care deeply about and encouraged them to find ways to inform and inspire others through their own making and writing.

Before I had to say good-bye, I asked them two final questions, and I pose the same two questions to you:

what do you care aboutRed girlBlue YWPPG.JPG



Posted in #Litterati, Creating, Creativity, Education, Environment, Making, Marine Debris, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Short-Sighted Optics

For several years, I have been regularly walking on the same stretch of beach in Northern San Diego County. I know it well by now, but even so, each time I am there it feels like a different place. The tides move in and out, the sand shifts, storms blow through, and the cliffs erode. The coastline is in a constant state of transformation.

Just as the beach appears to be a different place with each visit, the marine debris I find can be strikingly different from one day to the next. Yesterday, there was an abundance of cellophane food wrappers and plastic straws.


On some visits, the beach will be covered in micro-plastics and nurdles—tiny plastic pellets used in the manufacturing of plastic products.


During low tide on one small section of beach, I can depend on finding, worn aluminum cans, unidentifiable heavy black rubber molds, and eyeglasses in varying stages of disrepair.


I wrote a post on Creative Forgiveness after a visit to the beach during which I picked up a couple dozen, pens, pencils, and markers.

pens and pencils2

I don’t fully understand the shifts in tides that bring such a variety of things to shore, but I do know that I always leave the beach carrying at least a couple of bags overflowing with refuse.

People are often surprised to see me hauling so much trash off the beach. Somehow they aren’t able to see it when it is there in the sand right in front of them. Once I picked up a blue medical glove lying between two surfboards, while the oblivious surfers stood nearby. (I wrote about the medical waste I found that day in a blog post entitled Yuck.)


However, I am not excluded from the ranks of those who are short-sighted.

In fact, I have only recently begun to realize the impact our throw away culture is having on our oceans and our planet. I am among those who have had difficulty seeing the long-term effects of our addiction to single use plastics.

But now that I’ve seen it, it’s been impossible to look away. With that in mind, I created Short-Sighted Optics—a used display case filled with sunglasses embellished with  colorful pieces of plastic that I found washed up on the beach.


With Short-Sighted Optics, I ask two questions:

  • Are you blind to the problem of plastic pollution?
  • Will you be part of the solution?

I invite you to take a Short-Sighted Selfie, and I hope you will make a Plastic Pledge.

What will you chose to see and do?


The Out of Place: Detritus of Land and Sea exhibit, including Short-Sighted Optics is on display in the China Brotsky Gallery at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio. The gallery is open Monday – Friday from 9:00am – 5:00pm at 1012 Torney Ave, San Francisco.


Posted in #Litterati, Creating, Creativity, Environment, Marine Debris, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

On the Horizon—The Bay Model Exhibit

As I walk along the beach in Carlsbad, California, I collect and document litter that has washed up with the waves, was swept out with the run-off, or has been left behind by beach-goers. Many aspects of modern culture are represented in the detritus that I photograph with my iPhone.

Sad Face

Single-use water bottles, plastic bags, balloons, toys, cell phones, cleaning products, food packaging, and much more are curated by the tides. Each time I snap a photo of a piece of trash, I notice the contrast between the man-made refuse and the beauty of the shore, the crashing waves, and the ever-changing sky out toward the horizon. I enjoy the challenge of making something out of place look visually pleasing as I seek to tell the story of our polluted oceans.

branded wall

The photos and objects in my exhibit represent a fraction of the overwhelming amount of litter that I have picked up, but even on the days that I have trouble carrying my haul off of the beach, I don’t get discouraged. Instead, I find hope in the inspiration provided by others. My hope comes from knowing that I am part of a worldwide community of people who care about the environment and are taking action to make a difference, and I am hopeful even when wondering what might be on the horizon.



Many years ago, my sister and her husband helped me become aware of the problem of plastic pollution through their art. Judith and Richard Lang collect plastic refuse from Kehoe Beach in Marin County, California and turn their finds into beautiful works that have been on view in museums and galleries around the world. A documentary film called One Plastic Beach was even made to tell their story.

Influenced by their passionate dedication to their life’s work as artists and environmentalists, I have become a conscientious consumer and am more careful about what I recycle—but I never considered actually photographing beach trash until a friend who shares my passion for iPhoneography tagged me in a Tweet about Litterati, a crowd-sourced Instagram movement founded by writer and entrepreneur Jeff Kirschner.

I was pleased to discover that thousands upon thousands of pieces of litter had been photographed and uploaded into the Digital Landfill for documentation before being properly discarded by the Litterati community. I immediately joined in and started photographing and posting pictures of the litter that I pick up during my regular walks at the beach. I have also become interested in the idea that photos published through Instagram can move people to take action. Since discovering Litterati, I have found others who have started environmental movements through social media, including #2minutebeachclean created by Martin Dorey of Cornwall, England and #take3forthesea founded in Australia by Tim Silverwood.

For more information and to learn how you can participate, visit:


Take 3

2 Minute Beach Clean

Posted in #Litterati, Bay Model Gallery Exhibit, Environment, Instagram, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Oceanside Pier—A Place for Everyone

The first Oceanside Pier opened in 1888. It was rebuilt in 1987, and my husband and I moved here in 1988—coincidentally, the hundredth anniversary year of the opening of the original pier.

I worked at the newly opened upscale Fisherman’s Restaurant at the end of the pier until I got my first contracted teaching position in Oceanside. The seafood restaurant eventually failed. Ruby’s Diner took over and has been busy since the day it opened.


The pier is one of the longest on the West Coast, and when I worked there I walked from our rental a few blocks away to the end of the pier and back several days a week. At the time, a golf cart shuttle was available to take people out to the restaurant. Apparently, couples dressed up for a romantic evening out didn’t want to walk the distance, and women in heals had a hard time navigating the wooden planks. This could be one of the many reasons why a steak and seafood place didn’t do well in spite of the beautiful location.

Oceanside was a rough and tumble town, but the downtown area has improved. Contemporary condos and quaint row homes have been built, and expensive hotels and farm-to-table restaurants have revived previously run-down neighborhoods, However, it is still a marvelously gritty place where people from all walks of life live and visit.

I don’t do it often anymore, but I still enjoy walking the length of the pier. The beach is beautiful, the sunsets are spectacular, and there always seems to be something interesting happening.

Today it was evident that preparations were underway for a weekend surf contest. Tents were going up and sound equipment was being checked, but the local flavor of the area was not overshadowed by the excitement of the international surfing community.


As I walked, I reflected on everyone enjoying the pier, the beach, and the water. I noticed the diversity of people (one of my favorite things about Oceanside), and I started wondering about their individual lives.

How did the man resting on the artificial turf in the shade beneath the pier come to be homeless? Does his family know where he is? Does he even have family? IMG_3433 

When I asked a man with a gigantic Bull Mastiff if I could take a picture of his dog and his son, he said, “Sure,” but he also corrected me by telling me that the boy was not his son. I apologized for my mistake and looked around for the boy’s parents. I couldn’t figure out who the boy was with and worried about the fact that he seemed to be unsupervised. IMG_3448 

As I headed down the strand, I noticed a vintage-looking lemonade stand. A woman was placing her order at the window, and I was curious to know if she was with the group of pro surfers in town for the competition. IMG_3432

When I noticed a man picking bottles and cans out of a trash bin, I hoped that he wasn’t trying to support himself or his family by recycling them.


Then I saw a group of girls gathered around someone doing a caricature. They were giggling at the drawing and seemed close enough to be sisters. They were still standing together as I headed up the steep ramp to the pier. IMG_3449 

As I reached the top, I noticed an elderly couple enjoying the view—and the cool breeze. Their hats shaded their faces, and the man was wearing suspenders to keep his pants up. I wondered if they were Arizona desert-birds who headed to the coast to escape the heat.


Further along, a young couple dressed in matching leggings appeared to be watching the surfers. Her colorful hair stood out against the sky.


Just past where they stood, two musicians sat on a bench playing their guitars. An open case indicated that they were accepting donations. I wondered if they needed the money or if they were just playing for fun and practice.

 People were lined up to fish on both sides of the pier beyond the legal distance for casting out. Most appeared to prepared for a long day in the sun with comfortable chairs and cold beverages. I thought about the few times that I went fishing with my dad and wondered if the people who enjoy the sport grew up fishing with family.


I was surprised to find sisters from my school at the very end of the pier. The 4th and 5th grade girls were baiting their hooks and managing their reels and poles with skill. They were excited to show me all the fish they had caught. IMG_3445
I was happy to see them smiling and enjoying themselves because their father, who had been ill and in the hospital for months, passed away in the spring. They live with a guardian (who is not a relative) and a large extended family who loves them. I do not know why, but their mother has not been able to join them in the United States. They had to leave their mother behind in the Philippines after attending the service for their father. I remember their tears on their first day back at school when they returned.

After we chatted, I gave them each a hug and wished them a happy rest of their summer. I continued thinking about them as I walked away. I wondered what more we could do to support them when they return to school in the fall.

Before I headed to my car, I noticed the lifeguard station and an off-road Oceanside Police Department (OPD) vehicle equipped for the sand. The OPD logo reminded me of Officer Dan Bessant, a former student of mine killed in the line of duty blocks from the elementary school where I currently work by a young man who had attended the school and was remembered in the 5th grade as a quiet and respectful student. What went wrong in his life that he decided to commit such a horrible crime at such a young age?


I realized that there are interesting, heart-breaking, and joyful lives behind every pair of eyes that look out toward the Pacific from the Oceanside Pier. The surf and the weather will eventually take their toll on the sturdy wooden structure, but I am certain that the next generation will rebuild it when the time comes, because the Pier is a unique public space that welcomes everyone.



Posted in Creating, Creativity, Education, Environment, Equity, Living, Photography, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | 3 Comments

Radiant Equity

I recently had the pleasure of attending the DML 2015 conference, which is sponsored by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and is supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Kim Douillard and I were there with Doretta Winkleman and Tanya Baker to give a presentation on the Intersections research project that the San Diego Area Writing Project completed in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.


Our presentation went well, and the conference was exceptional. I learned a lot from the keynote speakers, plenary presenters, and panelists—and the Ignite Talks were energizing. By the end of the third day I felt empowered, inspired—and tired.  I didn’t know it, but I needed a creative outlet.

I headed to the #CLMOOC-style Mini Make Cycle workshop hosted by Anna Smith and Kim Douillard who shared a simple but engaging activity. Each participant was given a pair of dice and a two-column chart with six words listed in each column. After rolling the dice, we matched the numbers to the list of words. I rolled a 5 and a 1, which made my two-word phrase radiant equity.

dice game I was stumped. I had no idea how to use the random craft items displayed on the table to interpret radiant equity. In my frustration, I grabbed sheets of blue, green, and purple construction paper and a pair of the decorative scissor and started cutting.

IMG_9504 Without a plan, I cut three almost identical spirals that I connected and placed on a white background. When I stood back and looked, I thought that the design was pleasing and felt that the intertwined spirals could adequately represent both radiance and equity. In fact, a woman passing by the table noticed it and said, “Cool!” I politely thanked her, but I wasn’t satisfied.

Original Spirals

I took a photo of the spirals and began experimenting with iPhone apps. I decided to overlay the words radiant equity on the spirals using WordFoto, but my first attempt was a failure. The words appeared on the white background—not just on the spirals as I had imagined.

AdobePhotoshopExpress_2015_06_30_22:41:45 It didn’t take me long to realize that I should try inverting the colors using Photoshop Express in order to make the background black. When I uploaded the inverted image into WordFoto, it worked. The words radiant equity appeared only on the spirals!


I tweeted it and thought I was done. I didn’t know that I would return to those words and that image several more times.

For my initial CLMOOC 2015 introduction before the first Make Cycle even began, I decided to post the radiant equity image again. Deciding not to make something new seemed lazy, but I was proud of it and felt that the design expressed something about me as a person and a maker.

When Make Cycle 1: Unmake Intro, was underway, I started playing with radiant equity again. I opened the original in Photoshop on my Mac and adjusted the colors and repeated the pattern in spirals of different sizes. I added a border before copying and pasting the image to make a quilt-like effect. It was eye-catching, and I mistakenly thought I was done with the design.

radiant equity quilt As soon as I saw the email for Make Cycle 2: Re(MEDIA)te With Me , I thought about re(MEDIA)ting the design even further. I wanted to add movement, but I didn’t know how to animate an image. I starting researching and quickly discovered, which was easy to use. However, once again, I wasn’t satisfied.

Radiant_EquityAs I was considering additional transformations, I realized that I could make radiant equity into a positive statement about the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. I wanted to use the words radiant equity with my spiral design as a “fill” for the font, but I couldn’t remember how to do that complicated task in Photoshop. Luckily, I found a tutorial from that was easy to follow, and I was able to convert the font fairly quickly—but I still wasn’t satisfied.

radiant equity TEXT I changed the colors and filled the background with black. I then copied, pasted, and adjusted the hues in order to make six rows of radiant equity—the number of colors on a rainbow flag.

radiant equity flag And finally, I was satisfied.

When I rolled that pair of dice and received the words radiant equity, I didn’t know that the phrase would be so phophetic. No one at the “Equity by Design” conference could have possibly predicted that our nation would be celebrating a landmark Supreme Court opinion with wedding bells just a couple of weeks later.

My original design has become more meaningful to me and radiant equity has even more significance than I initially realized. I have played with the spirals and words and have morphed them into new forms. In the end, the graphic expresses my joy that love and equality have prevailed.

Re(MEDIA)tion is powerful, and equity is radiant.

Posted in Creating, Creativity, Equity, Making, Teaching, Writing | 8 Comments


I frequently confuse left and right when I give driving directions to others. When my husband is behind the wheel, I tell him to turn left when I want him to turn right, and if I ask him to turn right, he knows to turn left. I am not sure why my brain misfires, but even when I concentrate, I often get it wrong. In my mind, I can clearly envision turning in the direction I want to travel, but when I speak, the words come out the exact opposite of my thinking.

I have also been known to get turned around when figuring out directions on a map. In spite of my weaknesses, when SDAWP’s co-director Christine Kané passed out sections cut from maps for a writing prompt, I immediately knew that the piece she randomly handed me contained the location of Electric Works, a contemporary fine art press and book store co-owned by my sister’s husband.

I scanned that small square of map and circled the spot where I thought I would find his place of business. I then looked up the address and was amazed to find that I had gotten pretty close to its exact location. I was shocked by the coincidence and was surprised by my ability to read the map and find Electric Works so quickly.

electric works map
I immediately wanted to assign deeper meaning to the map. It prompted me to think about my relationship with my sister, and it served as a reminder that even though we live hundreds of miles apart, she is always present in my life. We are deeply connected in spite of the distance between us.

The map also reminded me of one of the adventures my sister and I shared while traveling in Italy. Her navigation skills aren’t much better than mine, and before long, we were hopelessly lost in Venice after dark. As we meandered along the circuitous route back to our hotel, we had fun exploring the quiet neighborhoods, and I remember those narrow passageways filled with the laughter of locals much more clearly than almost anything else from that memorable trip.


When Heather O’Leary posted a map as a mentor text for The Writing Thief MOOC, I was again reminded of the significance of maps, and I began to wonder how the digital age is changing our relationship with them. I sense that my navigation skills have gotten even worse as I have become increasingly dependent on GPS technology for directions.

In his article entitled “Do our Brains Pay a Price for GPS,” Leon Neyfakh states, ”When we use GPS, the research indicates, we remember less about the places we go, and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world.” Wandering a new neighborhood with a traditional map in hand helps improve spacial awareness while developing visual literacy.

Daniel Edelson from National Geographic states that “a delay in learning to read maps or a lack of proficiency in reading maps can be an obstacle to academic and intellectual progress.” He goes on to share the results of the 2010 National Assessment of Geography when referencing a lack of consistent geography instruction in schools across the country. “Only 21 percent of fourth graders in the United States were performing at grade level in an assessment that included basic map skills…”

As I have discovered, map reading isn’t just for wayfinding. Maps can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. I wonder if we are doing enough to teach our students the skills necessary to navigate through life successfully. I certainly hope they won’t ever need to depend on me for directions. I might just tell them to turn right when they should be turning left.

A variety of resources for teaching mapping skills can be found at the following sites:

Teaching with Maps from the NEA

Map Skills for Elementary Students: Spacial Thinking in Grades PreK-6 from National Geographic

Learn NC: Map Skills and Higher Order Thinking

Making the Most of Maps from

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The Power of Place

I spent the weekend at UC Davis exploring the connected learning approach to education with colleagues and friends from the San Diego Area Writing Project and the California Writing Project. Spending time at my alma mater and in my hometown of Sacramento brought back many memories. As we drove through familiar neighborhoods, I thought about family and friends. I reflected on the fun I had as a kid and thought about the struggles I experienced while growing up. I realized that places have power in our lives and can help us understand ourselves better.

smallhorseIn his autobiography, Mark Twain describes some of the places that gave his life meaning. Chapter 16 highlights his Uncle John’s farm, and as I read the detailed description, I was reminded of the summer vacations that I spent on my grandpa’s farm in Montana, where I rode horses and played in the garden. I was inspired to use Twain’s writing as a mentor text for writing about these experiences. As the memories returned, I was also inspired to find photos of my grandfather and his farm. With my sister’s help, some long-forgotten images were unearthed. I remember those times with more clarity, and I can feel the power of that place, as if I were there right now enjoying myself in the quiet countryside.

Fort Shaw, Montana (pop. 53) was an amazing place for a city girl to spend her summer vacations. A mile from the main road and just yards away from the Sun River, Grandpa’s farm was a peaceful haven. A big red barn towered over the garden out front, while the cows and pigs rested in the shade of the barn out back. The main house was a railroad boxcar taken from a decommissioned train, with a rustic screened in porch attached at one end and an antique-filled living room at the other. A wood-burning cast iron cook-stove was at the heart of the narrow knotty pine paneled room.

BarnThree times a day, the simple maple table was set for mouthwatering meals: juicy pan-fried steak, crispy roasted duck, broiled pork chops; new potatoes dug earlier that afternoon, corn on the cob fresh from the stalk, snap peas and green beans just picked from the vine; home-baked biscuits slathered in butter from the nearby dairy; rich custard and rhubarb pie hot out of the oven for dessert.

Food was grandpa’s poetry. As we ate one meal, he was already imagining the next. While we enjoyed our pancakes and eggs for breakfast, he spoke excitedly about what he would make for lunch. As we devoured our hamburgers for lunch, he elaborated on his ideas for supper, and while grandpa on porchwe enjoyed our evening meal, grandpa described the delectable late night snack we would share before heading off to bed.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Grandpa dreamt of food as he napped on the wicker chair in the corner of the wide airy porch—and if heaven exists, grandpa is still on the farm, working in the garden and preparing home-cooked meals to share with family and friends who join him in that cozy boxcar kitchen.

As the weekend in Sacramento came to a close, I was happy to be heading home to San Diego, but in doing so I was leaving my first home once again. My present self has been shaped by my past experiences in my hometown and while visiting my grandfather on his farm in Montana.

What places have shaped your present self? What mentor text could you use to help you write about a place that has meaning and power in your life?

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I am mad. I am mad about the trash I found on the beach today. It was disturbing and disgusting.

Fair warning! If you don’t want to be disturbed and disgusted, please don’t read any further.

I have been upset by some of the litter I have found in the past, but as I have written before, I try to be philosophical. I concentrate on all the good work people are doing in the world. I haven’t posted the photos of some of the ugly things I have found because I haven’t wanted to offend anyone. Besides some of you probably already think that my habit of taking photos of trash for #Litterati is weird.

It is time for me to get over it.

When I walk at the beach, I usually see at least one plastic tampon applicator wrapped in kelp or half-buried in the sand. I didn’t know they came in such a variety of colors. I have found them in shades of cream, green, pink, purple, and blue. Every time I see one, I wonder how it happened to wash up on the beach. I imagine the North Pacific Gyre, one of the enormous patches of garbage swirling in the ocean. Did these stray tampons break free of the gyre and float ashore in Carlsbad?

Finding a tampon on the beach a few feet from where children are building a sandcastle is cause for concern. What I found today was even more alarming.

IMG_1245One of my first finds was a blue medical glove lying in the wet sand between two surfboards. I don’t know if it washed up after the surfers arrived or if they just didn’t notice it when they put their boards down. Either way, I wasn’t surprised to see the glove. I have found them many times in the past.

I mumbled, “Yuck,” and looked around to see if anyone was watching as I picked it up using my inside-out bag-into-bag method.

IMG_1262As I continued down the beach, I found a soda can and some candy wrappers before encountering my next medical find: a surgical mask. The glove followed by a mask made me pause. I look for patterns in the litter that washes up; a scary one appeared to be emerging.


On I went and before long, I stumbled upon a syringe wrapper. I was shocked and was soon sickened when I saw a sanitary pad. An Ecolab antibacterial soap container didn’t make me feel any better.


Then I noticed something that I thought was a white towel. As I approached, I could see elastic bands that helped me identify it as a mattress pad. Even more surprising, a medical glove and a small plastic cup like those used to administer medications were entangled in its fabric.

I did not pick that pile up, and I felt guilty about it. I made excuses. My bags were already filled with litter. I didn’t want to touch it with my bare hands, and I didn’t have anything to use to safely dispose of it. I took a quick picture and walked away. I passed some teenage girls who were tanning nearby, and I didn’t even warn them.

As I walked on, I found a purple tampon applicator in the kelp, and even further along, I noticed a mint green one hugging the base of the cliff as young people played Frisbee nearby.

IMG_1330An open “alcohol prep” package was also there on the beach. A mother sat on a rock and watched as her daughter splashed in the surf a few feet away.

I imagined more of the waste swirling in the waves around the swimmers. I felt like yelling “shark” so everyone would run out of the water and escape the swell unharmed—but I wouldn’t have dared.

Instead, this blog post is my warning.

When I got home, I called I Love a Clean San Diego to report what I had found, and the person I spoke to referred me to the ranger station at the South Carlsbad State Beach. The ranger told me that they would let the lifeguards know. I asked them to have the lifeguards locate and dispose of the mattress pad that I had left behind. I then went online and filed a report with the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not sure if there is anyone else I should call or anything more I can do other than inform and educate anyone who will listen.

If you are disturbed and disgusted, here are some links where you can learn more about marine debris:

Act now with the National Resources Defense Council.

Visit the EPA to Learn What You Can Do.

Find ideas for educating others, using the resources provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They offer free K-12 curriculum as well as posters and other teaching materials.

Participate in I Love a Clean San Diego or other local events.

Join the Litterati.

Be inspired by Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang, my sister and her husband. Visit their Beach Plastic blog and watch One Plastic Beach, a short documentary about their work.

Posted in #Litterati, Environment, Instagram, Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments