Creative Forgiveness

On a recent visit to the beach, I picked up a least a dozen pens, pencils, and markers that had washed up on shore. It’s interesting how one type of trash will be present in abundance on a given day. Sometimes I find toothbrushes and cosmetics. Other days, candy wrappers, yogurt containers, or cans of chewing tobacco are strewn up and down the coastline.

pens and pencils2

Writing implements are not something I usually find, but that day they were prevalent. Each time I spotted one in the sand, it felt like I was being sent a message, and I was prompted to reflect on why I haven’t been writing or drawing lately.

I created my Write the World blog after thinking about it for a very long time. I met my goal of posting once a week for several weeks, and then I quit. It was hard to keep up. I let negative self-talk and excuses get in my way. Since my last post on January 31st, I have thought about blogging almost every day. I have kept track of my ideas in a list of notes that I keep on my iPhone, but I haven’t allowed myself to take the risk of writing something to post.

I am also a doodler. I enjoy drawing weird abstract pictures of faces, flowers, and creatures. But I haven’t been doodling lately either. I am not sure when I last picked up my sketchbook and pen. I get nervous when I even think about it. What if I can’t think of anything interesting to draw?

my doodle

It may sound clichéd, but I guess I am experiencing a creative block. My dad regrettably lived a lifetime in this state.

He was an architect who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. He designed base housing and military structures—not a creative way for an architect to spend a career, but I think he was comfortable in his job. He was a shy man who didn’t want to stand out in any way.

When he was 16 or 17, he painted a few watercolors that were exceptional, but he quit painting in spite of his talent. 60 years later, he saw two of the works he had completed in his teens matted and displayed in our home. His only comment was “nice frames.” He couldn’t acknowledge the beauty of his paintings, and he was unable to accept our praise.

dad's painting 1
My father was incoherent the week before he died. He couldn’t say much, but he was able to utter one last sentence: “I am disappointed in…” I held my breath, thinking it was something I had done or hadn’t done “…I am disappointed in my creativity.”

I don’t want to find myself echoing my father’s final words in my old age. I don’t want to live my life regretting that I didn’t fully express myself. I don’t want to die disappointed in my own creativity.

I will follow the wise advice from Ann Patchett about forgiveness that I recently read in Explore.

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

I too forgive myself. This is the best I could do for today. I didn’t write the blog post I wanted to write, but I wrote the one I am capable of writing.

It feels good to be forgiven.

Posted in #Litterati, Creating, Creativity, Environment, Leading, Living, Making, Photography, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How Do Our Hands Help Us Explore and Understand the World?

I must admit that until recently I had taken my hands for granted. I began to realize their importance as I worked with students on a self-portrait project inspired by Wendy Ewald’s The Best Part of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and in Words. Through the portrait making process, I have grown to understand and appreciate how deeply our hands connect us to each other and to everything around us.

Janis's open hand In his book, The Hand: How It Shapes the Brain Language and Human Culture, Frank R. Wilson questions where we would be without our hands, stating “Our lives are so full of commonplace experience in which the hands are so skillfully and silently involved that we rarely consider how dependent upon them we actually are,” and in a National Geographic article entitled The Common Hand, Carl Zimmer eloquently states, “The hand is where the mind meets the world.”

When I asked the group of ten and eleven-year-olds to create photo portraits of their hands as a way to express their individuality, I discovered a little bit about how their hands help them meet the world—and they learned a lot about themselves as they explored how they create, play, and make connections through their hands.

daniel sWe began the project with a simple activity to get us thinking about our hands and how they are helpful. The students traced outlines of their hands in which they brainstormed all the reasons why their hands are important to them. Students listed their hobbies such as sports and drawing along with ways they use their hands to care for pets and help parents with chores.

Janis's fistI then introduced the idea self-expression through self-portrait by sharing several photos I had taken of my own hand. Through each image, I attempted to show a different emotion, such as anger, calm, excitement, and openness. The students and I discussed the photographs as we analyzed what each was expressing.

After we talked about all the ways our hands could be used to express an idea or emotion, I explained the variety of options they had for photographing their hands. When they got to work, most partnered up because they quickly discovered that it is almost impossible to take a photo of one’s own hand with an iPad. The students were encouraged to explore and be creative as they considered composition, including background, perspective, and lighting.

meleThe expressive portraits they created astonished me. One student placed her hand against a poster of the clouds with the word imagine, and another choose to take a photo of her hand as she reached toward a flower. Several of the boys decided to focus on sports while one made a peace sign symbol in front of a map of the United States. He said he wanted to express his desire for world peace.

After the students had the opportunity to make several images, we turned our efforts to writing about our hands. After looking everywhere for a poem that could be used as a mentor text, I was inspired to write my own.

My Hands
Janis Selby Jones

My hands are precious and creative.
They are lined but they are strong.
They help me tell my story.

My hands labor in the garden.
They pack the earth tight around a sculptural succulent.
They pick colorful flowers and pull insidious weeds.

My hands work hard in the kitchen.
They season sauces and savory delights.
They make delicious meals for my friends and family to enjoy.

My hands make art.
They draw portraits and paint mountain landscapes.
They create fantastical pictures that only I can imagine.

My hands are precious and creative.
They are lined but they are strong.
They help me tell my story.

As we studied the poem, the students pointed out the repetition and patterns they observed. They were then able to apply what they noticed to their own writing. The students wrote drafts that they typed in Pages before adding images to their documents. Their products were well done (see sample My Hands), but we decided to go one step further by creating multi-media digital projects.

I discovered an app called Shadow Puppet, which allowed students to quickly and easily create narrated slide shows using multiple images. Some were nervous about using the app to read and record their poems, but with practice, they were able to master the app and their fears.

Our final event was a film festival of sorts. We watched the videos and responded to each other with positive feedback. Sharing was the most difficult part for many of the students. A few were embarrassed to open themselves up in such personal ways.

In their reflections, the students who expressed concerns about sharing also expressed that they were proud of themselves for overcoming their shyness and allowing others to view their creative and personal works.

The students and I got to know and understand ourselves and each other better by sharing our thoughts and feelings about our hands. In his reflection L.H. stated, “I learned that my hands are very special for many reasons. I also learned that my classmates admire their hands too.”

J.H. shared that he learned “that all of my classmates have a cool part about them because I never knew that D.S. could make home-baked goods or that M.N. liked playing volleyball. I never knew a lot about my classmates.”

You too can get to know a few of these special fifth grade students by watching their amazing multi-media presentations posted below. They might even inspire you to get to know yourself a little better by reflecting on all the reasons why your hands are important to you.

Posted in Creating, Education, Photography, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

What Will You Do?

I have known about the problem of plastic pollution for a long time. Many years ago, my sister and her husband made me aware of the issue through their art. Judith and Richard Selby 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.

I couldn’t help but be influenced by their passionate dedication to their life work as artists and environmentalists. They have inspired me to become a conscientious consumer and to be more careful about what I recycle—but I never considered actually picking up beach trash until recently.

When a friend who shares my passion for iPhoneography tagged me in a Tweet about Litterati, I was intrigued to learn more about the crowd-sourced Instagram movement founded by writer and entrepreneur Jeff Kirschner. Thanks to the many members of the Litterati community close to 27,000 pieces of litter have been photographed, uploaded, and properly discarded. I immediately joined in and started picking up litter during my regular walks at the beach.

Now, on almost every trip I make to Carlsbad Cliffs, I collect and discard (or recycle) a bag or two filled with litter that was swept out with the run-off, washed up with the waves, or left behind by lazy beach goers. I only post photos of a small fraction of what I collect.

balloon on hte beachWhen I snapped a shot of a clear balloon, I noticed the contrast between the smoothness of the clear plastic against the roughness of the rocky cliffs. The sky was blue with wisps of white clouds in the background, and the sun was at a good angle to capture the light. I took several shots before I was satisfied that I had something I could share on Instagram. I enjoyed the challenge of making something so out of place look visually pleasing.

I didn’t expect that photograph of a balloon to win any awards and was surprised to receive a message from Stop Plastic Pollution that my image had been entered in a contest they were hosting through Litterati in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRCD).

bottlesA few days later, I was thrilled when I was notified that my photo had actually won, and I couldn’t believe it when my prize package arrived in the mail. I received four eco-friendly Earthlust water bottles of different sizes and colors—each decorated with unique original art. (Spoiler alert—I plan to do some Christmas shopping on their site.)

I love my beautiful new water bottles, but picking up and discarding litter is its own reward. I recently read an article about Litterati in which with Jeff Kirschner was quoted as saying, “Individually, we can make a difference. Together, we can make an impact.”

I know I am making a difference. What will you do to help have an impact?

Posted in #Litterati, Environment, Instagram, Living, Photography, SDAWP Photo Voices | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Audience of One

I used to write almost every day. I always started by putting the date at the top of a page before proceeding to scribble down whatever was on my mind, mostly mundane details of daily life and/or updates on my emotional state. I wrote in my journal to share secrets and express worries that I didn’t want to tell anyone else.

diaryI have a crate filled with these old journals. The oldest one dates back to the early 1970s when I purchased my first lock and key diary. I soon switched to notebook paper collected in a plain brown 4” binder. Over the years, I graduated to spiral notebooks, and I have purchased many beautiful journals over the years. I still go through phases when I write daily, but it’s easy to let excuses such as a lack of time get in the way.

I can’t use excuses when I am with my San Diego Area Writing Project’s (SDAWP) colleagues as I was on Saturday morning for our first book study group gathering of the school year. The meeting began with a few introductory words from Director Kim Douillard before Co-director Christine Kane challenged us with several quick write prompts. Christine shared a variety of quirky images and unique texts to spark our creativity. In addition, she asked us to think about what worked and what didn’t work for us as writers.

I had come prepared. I had my iPad mini in my bag, and I had also brought along a new college-ruled spiral—just in case. For the activity, I quickly decided to use the spiral notebook. I knew that I would be able to write more words in a limited amount of time with pen and paper. After each round of two prompts, we shared our writing in triads. It didn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed the photo prompts best, and I even produced some ideas that I might return to and develop later.

hicksAfter the whole group meeting concluded, we met in smaller clusters based on the books we had previously chosen to study. I had selected Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks and was pleased to sit down with twelve amazing educators each of whom, regardless of prior digital writing experience, shared a passion for teaching writing. The diversity in our group led to an engaging conversation as we mapped out our plans for reading and sharing over the next few months.

On the drive back to Vista, I reflected on the discussion about digital writing and thought about the choice I had made that morning to use pen and paper rather than my iPad for the timed writing exercises.

When I arrived at home, I decided to experiment by attempting to compose a blog post in my spiral notebook. I even thought that I would photograph the page and use my handwritten work as my actual entry as a way to blur the lines between digital writing and writing by hand.

But as I took pen to paper something unexpected happened. Even though I set out to write something for my blog, the writing I produced wasn’t the type of writing that I would ever consider posting. It was stream of consciousness journal-type writing much like the writing I have collected through the years in my old notebooks. It’s hard to believe, but for the first time, I truly understood that, for me, the experience of writing by hand differs significantly from writing in a word processing program.

For years, I used notebooks as private spaces for expressing my ideas and nothing more. When writing on my laptop, I have always started with the audience and purpose in mind. When I have written in my journal, I haven’t worried about making sense to anyone other than me. When I have opened up a notebook, I have written without knowing where the next word may lead. My type written pieces have had a logical sequence with solid transitions, but they have often lacked the creative free-flowing energy of my journal writing.

moochieI am looking forward to learning new ways to use digital tools with students as I explore Crafting Digital Writing with the study group. However, there is still something to be said for the personal heart-felt delight of penning words on a fresh piece of lined notebook paper.

As an educator, I know the value of having students write for an authentic audience, but I never want to forget that sometimes a journal with an audience of one can still provide the best reasons to write.

Posted in Education, Living, Teaching, Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

Del Rio’s Green Team Dream

snailWhen I walk at the beach, I often stop and scan the ocean out to the horizon. I notice the surfers as they wait patiently for the perfect wave, and I watch seabirds soaring overhead as they search for something to eat. Occasionally, my husband and I have even glimpsed a spout of misty air as a gray whale surfaces.

At low tide, I explore the rocky tide pools and enjoy getting an inkling of the turban 2wide diversity of life that exists below. On recent trips, I have discovered an amazing variety of animals, including sea slugs, starfish, anemones, rock crabs, kelp snails, and sea hares. I have even found a couple of the descriptively named wavy topped turban gastropods. The tide pools reveal some of the complexity of life dwelling beneath the surface, just as the litter I find washed up on shore hints at the vast amount of trash that makes its way down our watersheds and into our oceans.

sea hareUntil recently, people believed that “no matter how much trash and chemicals humans dumped into [our oceans], the effects would be negligible.” By now, most have heard of the North Pacific Gyre and the patch of garbage the size of the state of Texas that is swirling out at sea. It has become widely known that the negative effects have in fact been profound. Unfortunately, in spite of environmental advocacy by groups and individuals, bad habits have been slow to change.

I am excited that my school, Del Rio Elementary, is embarking on a zero waste campaign that will help us decrease the amount of trash we produce. We will be the second school in Oceanside, CA to join the city’s effort to achieve a 75% reduction in the amount of waste being sent to landfills by the year 2020.

Two inspirational women, Jenna Roripaugh and Corinna Goodwin, who spent a very long September day at Del Rio conducting our first waste audit, are coordinating the Zero Waste Schools program. They labored for hours at our site as they sorted and weighed every scrap to determine where it is heading in the waste stream. The data will provide us with a baseline that will be used to document our progress.

In October, Corinna visited each of our classrooms to share the results of the audit. In addition, she invited students to join the Del Rio Green Team—a group that will consist of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students who will make our zero waste goal possible.

Many students are actually volunteering to give up their recesses to help collect and sort our trash. They will be assigned to monitor and assist during breakfast and lunch service, and they will also help pick up litter left strewn around campus. As our program grows and funding becomes available, we hope to build a garden and start composting.

I am excited about the impact that we will be able to have on our immediate environment, but I am also enthused about the opportunity to teach our kids that they can have an impact far beyond the school. My hope is that our Green Team will learn that they can become catalysts for even greater changes.

To empower them, we will start a student-led Green Team Zero Waste blog; we will create multi-media productions that will be shared online; and we will participate in appropriate crowd-sourced initiatives such as #litterati.

crabMaybe we will even find a way to take a field trip to the beach so the Green Team can spend some time cleaning up the debris we are sure to find washed ashore. If we time our adventure right, we might even get to observe of a few of the incredible creatures living in the tide pools.

Our school is small, but I believe our ability to have a positive impact is enormous. It will take passion, action, and hard work on the part of many, but I am ready to begin. Our kids are ready too. Are you?

Posted in #Litterati, Education, Environment, Leading, Living, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Is Hope?

water bottle Hope is taking action and becoming part of the solution…

I found a water bottle on the beach last week. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. Every time I go to the beach, I pick up several empty beverage containers, many of which are discarded single-use plastic water bottles.

Often, someone has left an empty bottle in the sand among other scattered pieces of litter. Sometimes, I discover a plastic bottle bobbing in the surf. Occasionally, I come upon one that was left perched on the stone ledge carved by nature along the base of the cliffs where I walk.

This particular bottle was wrapped in a strand of kelp and was leaning against a mossy green rock. Its label faced up, boldly stating, “Fitness is hope….”

As I read the label, I became curious about the type of person who would leave the bottle behind. Did he or she actually find hope in fitness? My thoughts quickly turned to my own sense of hope. I began to wonder why the act of picking up other people’s litter doesn’t discourage and depress me. Why does it make me feel hopeful?

I found a definition of hope that explains it. Dr. Shane Lopez, who researches hope, states that it is “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.”

Another hope researcher, Jennifer Cheavens explains that hope is more than wishful thinking. “Hope has two components: a map or pathway to get what you want and the motivation and strength to follow that path.”

When I pick up litter left on the beach, I do not focus on what is wrong. I resist becoming angry at those who litter. I don’t get upset with manufacturers of plastic containers, and I don’t scowl at the beverage industry.

I find hope in the inspiration that my sister and her husband provide through the art that they make with the plastic they collect from Kehoe Beach in Marin County, California. ( I also find hope in Litterati and those who are “cleaning the planet one piece of litter at a time.” My hope comes from knowing that I am part of a worldwide community that cares about the environment. My hope grows even stronger when I take action and become part of the solution.

Hope is helping others overcome…

A few years ago, I discovered a picture book by Lauren Thompson called Hope is an Open Heart. The book was written in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

As the author tried to find a way to explain the tragedy to her young son, she focused on hope. Written in metaphors, the book couples poetic language with powerful photographic images of children from around the world.

Hope is an open heartHope is the warmth of strong arms around you.
Hope is sad tears flowing, making room for joy.
Hope is angry words bursting, making room for understanding.
Hope is a heart that is open to the world all around you.

Hope is knowing that things can change—
and that we can help things to change for the better.

I used the book as a mentor text and was amazed by the writing that the struggling students in my 4th grade reading intervention group did in response.

One student, who lost his older brother to a drive-by shooting, wrote:

Hope is having fun with everything around you. It is loving people everywhere.fabian

Another, who struggled with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and was filled with rage, shared:

Hope is the happiness of something you want to do and the happiness of doing it.joseph

Many of the students who attend the school where I work exist in seemingly hopeless situations. They have to deal with abuse, drugs, and gang violence in their daily lives, but they are still able to express hope in their writing.

Cheavens believes that hope can be taught if we “build on the strengths people have and teach them how to develop those strengths. We need to focus not on what is wrong but on ways to help people live up to their potential.” As educators, we must find ways to help our students live up to their potential.

Hope is essential to learning and life. How can we help our students find their own reasons to have hope? We need to believe in them, and we must help them learn to believe in themselves.

Posted in #Litterati, Education, Living, Mentor Text, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Writing to Connect with Nature

On the bluffWrite to Connect is the theme for the 2013 National Day on Writing, which has expanded into a weeklong celebration of making connections through writing. In my October 6th blog post, I wrote about the importance of being a connected educator, but I have also been reflecting on my connections with nature.

One way I have been connecting is by noticing the cycle of the tides. At least once a day, I check the Tide Table app I downloaded to my iPhone, because I want to know if low tide will occur when it will be convenient for my daily walk. If I don’t time it right, the waves will be crashing on the cliffs, and I won’t be able to explore my preferred route along the base of the mossy green rocks. I have learned a lot about the patterns of the Pacific simply by paying attention to the tides, and in the process, I have developed deeper feelings of connection to the environment.

For the past three summers, I have also had the opportunity to help children connect with the environment while teaching at Young Writers in Nature (YWN), a 5-day camp held the last week of June at the University of California, San Diego. (UCSD). The camp, which is hosted by the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), provides students entering grades 3 – 6 engaging opportunities to observe and write about the native plants and animals living in the endangered coastal sage scrub ecosystem of Southern California.

atlanticsThe walking field trip to the Knoll, a protected mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the Scripps Coastal Reserve has become the highlight of YWN. When we arrive at the western-most-point of the reserve, the campers sit down on logs lining the overlook, and we share a picture book called Atlantic. The book, by G. Brian Karas, is written from the poetic perspective of the ocean.

I am the Atlantic Ocean
I begin where the land runs out at the end of yards and streets and hills
I am the blue water at the beach, the waves, mists and storms

After we read the book, we ask each camper to use it as a mentor text for his/her own “I Am” poem. Campers can choose to write from the perspective of anything in nature that we have observed at YWN. For example, Sakeena wrote from the perspective of the Pacific Ocean while Emre wrote from the perspective of wild grasses, and Eve wrote from the perspective of the cliffs.

group on cliffI am the big, blue mighty Pacific, dancing my waves across the sandy seashore. I hear the soft, playful dolphins splashing excitedly in and out of my silky water. ~Sakeena

I’m the lush green grass on the cliffs, swishing to the music only I can hear, swaying side to side as the wind calls. ~Emre

I am a little gnatcatcher, happily buzzing through the sky, making my small “mews.” ~Eve

Campers submit their favorite lines, which are added to a collective poem that is shared with parents as on the final day. Through their poetry, campers express their connections with nature and their voices come alive as the group I Am Nature poem is read line-by-line.

While teaching at camp last summer, I stumbled upon an article in National Geographic that confirmed what I already felt to be true. The article entitled Connecting with Nature Boosts Creativity and Health includes an interview with Richard Louv who coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” He has written many books about the importance of connecting with nature, and he believes that a loss of connection can affect an ability to “feel ultimately alive.”

photoYoung people (and all people) need time to explore, observe, and appreciate the environment in order to develop and deepen connections. Louv states, “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love of this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole.”

Opportunities to write in nature can further enhance those feelings of connectedness and will help students develop the most vital connections of all—the connections they make to themselves and their world.

Posted in Education, Living, Mentor Text, SDAWP Photo Voices, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Something to Celebrate

never stop writingI lucked into an invitation to hear Lucy Calkins speak at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in San Diego on Saturday, and I spent the day in awe. Lucy is a renowned writing teacher who has written many influential books on the subject. As she spoke about literacy and leadership, I felt the power of her words. My skin tingled with goose bumps, and my heart leapt with excitement. I was at church.

I was exhausted when I got home, but I felt compelled to try to capture the highlights of the day. I contemplated the big ideas from Lucy’s presentation and started to draft a blog post. However, as I tried to synthesize my thoughts, it seemed forced. I spent a day immersed in powerful ideas that resonated, but I was not inspired to write.

Then, Kim Douillard’s daily blog post arrived in my email inbox. Kim candidly shared that she considered not posting to her Thinking Through My Lens blog for one of the first times in close to one-hundrend days. She finally realized that she had something to write about after I Tweeted Ruth Ayers CELEBRATE link-up. Ruth’s Saturday Celebrations prompted Kim to write about celebrating the ordinary, and as I read Kim’s post, I new I had to reconsider letting my own reluctance get the better of me.

pencilsNow, as I consider the twists and turns that my thinking took before I successfully wrote one word, I reflect on the expectations we have of our students. What do we do when children struggle with writing tasks? Do we look over their shoulders and demand that they get to work? Do we pass by their desks and impatiently question why they have only written a few words?

Or do we sit down beside them and ask them what will help them get started?

We can’t even begin to imagine what our students might need if we don’t challenge ourselves as writers first. We must write when we are inspired, and we must write when we are not. We need to feel the joy and the pain of the process in order to understand what our students experience.

notebookphotoAt the end of her talk, Lucy Calkins encouraged each of us to discover our own narratives in order to counter the negative influences all around us. She urged us to find the “storyline that we want to tell and embody,” and concluded by emphasizing that “we are the authors of our lives. We are the authors of the stories of our schools and our communities. We need a storyline that will give us the strength to move forward.”

As we strive to find the storylines that will give us the strength to move forward, how can we help our students find theirs too? Writing—even when we don’t want to—will help us take our first step. In fact, I think it is more than a step forward. I think it’s cause for celebration. Thank you, Lucy, Ruth, and Kim, for helping me find something to celebrate.

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I Am a Connected Educator!

wordfoto2October is Connected Educator Month, which “seeks to broaden and deepen educator participation in online communities of practice and move toward a more fully connected and collaborative profession.”

In response, I have been pondering my own connections.

I have always had trouble connecting. I am somewhat introverted and feel socially awkward much of the time. I have been known to ruminate over every word and can drive myself crazy with self-doubt.

“Still waters run deep,” a college professor once told me after reading one of my essays. He explained that he was surprised by the insight I expressed in my paper because I was so quiet in class. Another professor actually chased me down the hall after we were dismissed. He stopped me and demanded to know why I never spoke in the seminar of ten students. I could only reply with three words, ”I don’t know.”

But I did know. Every time I had an idea to share or question to ask, I felt overwhelming anxiety. My heart would start pounding, my hands would shake, and I would think of all the reasons why anything I had to say was too stupid to share. I would remain in a state of panic until the discussion moved on and the opportunity passed.

I have grown in my ability to communicate, and it is hard for me to imagine that I ever had such difficulty speaking up. I still suffer from what is probably a normal amount of nervousness, but I am no longer paralyzed with fear. I don’t worry—as much—about what others think.

However, my beginning efforts to connect as an online educator presented a few new challenges. For example, I was slow to take to Twitter, and I have rarely participated in chats. As I have lurked, I have thought of things I might want to say, but self-doubt has resurfaced in the unfamiliar environment filled with virtual strangers. I have heard that old voice asking, “What if I say (or Tweet) something stupid?”

My confidence grew over the summer as I participated in Making Learning Connected: A Connected Learning Massive Open Online Collaboration (#clmooc). Each week a new Make Cycle was introduced. For example, the assignment for week one was to create a self-portrait. I used an app called WordFoto to produce the portrait that I shared with the G+ community. I received positive feedback, and I was hooked.

credoThroughout July, we played with new tools and reflected on our makes. I was able to express myself creatively when I shared my credo in Week 4. I began fully participating in the conversation and developed deeper feelings of connectedness.

I never could have imagined that it would lead to the opportunity to speak about Connected Educator Month as a guest on the National Writing Project’s NWP Radio. I felt a rush of nerves when I read the initial email invitation from Kim Douillard, Director of the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), but excitement was quick to follow as I thought about sharing my experiences.

The host Christina Cantrill and the other guests including Kim and SDAWP Fellows Barb Montfort and Abby Robles made it easy and comfortable. I wasn’t nervous about talking on air. (I even encourage you to listen to the archive of the program at

That young woman who couldn’t speak in front of a small group has grown up and has developed the confidence to speak to the world. I have found my voice and am making connections, but I worry about the quiet kids who sit in class without saying anything. I wonder if they experience the painful feelings of fear and self-doubt that held me back. How many of our students have something to say but no way to say it? How can we help our students find their voices so that they too can share themselves with the world?

21st century educators must connect in order to be able to effectively guide students in building their own connections. Powerful tools are available. Let’s use them to communicate and collaborate as we build enriching professional relationships and model what it means to be connected.

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A Purple Balloon

photoI was inspired by the incredible ideas shared at the San Diego Area Writing Project’s Fall Conference yesterday morning, and my mind was reeling as I stopped at my favorite Carlsbad beach on the way home. I didn’t expect to find a connection to SDAWP Fellow and poet Frank Barone when I kicked off my shoes and set off on my trek but that is exactly what happened.

While walking, I stopped as I always do to clean the beach of washed up debris and litter left behind by lazy beachgoers. The first piece of beach trash I came across was a shredded purple balloon that had obviously spent some time in the ocean. I snapped several photos of it for #litterati and immediately thought of the inspiration that Frank has provided to multitudes of young writers across San Diego County as an English teacher, writer, and speaker.

frank1Frank, who many of our SDAWP colleagues also know as “the man with the purple balloon,” illustrates metaphor by holding up an inflated purple balloon and asking, “What else do you see?” Frank moves the balloon upside-down, sideways, and right-side up and urges students to consider everything that the color and shape evoke. With this simple prompt, students start imagining purple fish swimming in the sea, sweet grapes growing on vines, and vibrant wildflowers blooming in fields. As the children share their ideas orally, he assures them that they are creating metaphors and crafting poetry.

As I reflect on the impact that Frank has had on students and teachers with his purple balloon, my thoughts return to the shredded remnants of a balloon I found on the beach. What metaphors does it hold? A child might imagine a sea anemone or a jellyfish, but I can only see the environmental impact our throw away culture is having on our oceans.

Last Saturday was Coastal Clean Up Day. It is touted as the largest one–day volunteer project on the planet. Thousands of helpful hands picked up tons of trash in one morning. How many more pieces of litter must be cleaned up off our beaches before people realize the harm being caused by our carelessness and callousness?

A purple balloon can be a powerful metaphor in the hands of an inspirational teacher. A shredded purple balloon in the surf is a sad reality.

For more by and about Frank Barone:
frank2“The Balloon Man” by Ariel Foy, Dialogue—Fall 2010.
“If I Ask You to Write a Poem” by Frank Barone, Dialogue—Fall 2010.
“Searching for My Muse” by Frank Barone, Dialogue—Spring 2005.
“Have Fun with Words” by Frank Barone, Dialogue—Fall 2005.
“21 Senses Revisited” by Frank Barone, Dialogue—Winter 2003.

Posted in #Litterati, Education, Photography, SDAWP Photo Voices, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments