She Might Be Jackson Pollock

They might be heroes

Prepare for awesome.  Whatever it is you do for that…  do it.  I have no idea what you may have thought of They Might Be Giants prior to this post.  If you are unfamiliar, prepare for awesome.  You are hereby twice warned.

This band had a few airplay successes prior to becoming an educational boon for children far and wide.  Moreover, if you teach science or math to little ones, you owe yourself a catch-up weekend with these guys.  Delaney, our three year old, is a huge fan.  She’d tell you so, but you’d probably rather hear her sing.  Her all-time favorites:  Cells, The Bloodmobile, Photosynthesis, Science Is Real, Meet The Elements, Electric Car, Number Two, and Roy G. Biv.  There are many more she’s loved in the past couple of years, but really…  wouldn’t it be cool if a group this edgy would have something like  -oh, I dont know-  a wiki to organize all of this awesomeness?  Yep-  you guessed it:  This Might Be a Wiki.  Dig it.

So today I’d like to highlight an amazing band, a slick iPhone application, and a bit of the early-childhood learning fallout resulting from a clash of the two.

Today while Mommy was away, Delaney sat upon my lap for about an hour floating fingers through digital space…  spilling paint ala Jackson Pollock (one of my faves), all in the name of science influenced by TMBG.  As I sat in my chair piddling about with a new app, Delaney quickly came up to sit on my lap.  She’s used to occasionally plunking about with learning apps on Erin’s phone, but rarely gets that chance on mine.  Today, she watched me scribble about for something like 20 seconds before wanting to “…do it Daddy…  can I pwease?”  What do you think I said?

crappie jig I

Can you guess where my mind is in Midwestern March after 1) a very long and precipitous winter, and 2) flailing out the above image?  It is here that I have to warn you: the remainder of this post may contain mushy dadspeak.  If you can’t hang, bail now.


Delaney quickly said…  can I do it?  After a shake of the phone, and a clear of the screen. I asked her what color she wanted to use.  She promptly chose bwack… and after a circumnavigation of the screen with her sweet little finger, she starter chattering quasi-intelligibly about cells.  “What did you say?  What is that?  “It’s a cell Daddy…  cells are inside of all of us, it’s a blood cell.”  I had heard that much before.  But from there it got a bit more fun…

a cell

From there she whipped out an interior circle of sorts which she called the “nutrients” (smart me quickly realized this to be the nucleus) that “…has DNA in it.”  Now, a biology-teacher dad like me might be completely freaked out at this point if he hadn’t known of his daughter’s exploits with the TMBG songs and videos residing in Mommy’s iTunes closet.

She went on to tell me that, “DNA makes brown hair… and eyes… and boys and girls.”  If I wasn’t already in love with this little lap critter as my own little girl, I would have soon been hooked.

Who says this sort of thing when three?  As an instructional coach, I pay a great a great deal of attention to academic background knowledge.  Setting aside for a moment my deep beliefs in a rather constructivist approach to learning, we all know the benefit of children beginning any new learning with a prior set of relevant experiences…  or at the very least some of the vocabulary that goes with it.  How does Freshman biology change when these basics roll of the tongue like Schoolhouse Rock did for me?

cell number two

This cool little app allowed her to select new colors with the flick of a tiny finger.  I pointed out which buttons did what, and she quickly drank it in like it was the tricky block atop the Lego tower.  She then cranked out a few more cells and ended with, “Daddy, it’s your turn… you do it,” as a plea for modeling some fun.  What did I do?  Not much more than what she had already done.  It’s a bit tough trying to squeeze in a mitochondria with big kid fingertips.  All I did was to ask questions along the way.  I asked if she would tell me what I needed to do next.  I let her run the show.  I tried to roll with what she already thought was important.  She’s three.  Not fourteen.

trees and birds in the rainforest

After tiring of cells, she wanted to make ” a tree.”  She shook the phone to get a blank white slate, and then begged me to “draw too.”  She implored me to begin and I quickly drew in the brown trunk and branches.  After grabbing it away, the rest was all her.  Of course the tree needed “green leaves” and a line of “grass” beneath, and then a flock of “birds” above.  The black scribbles of birds in the image above are the birds in “the rainforest.”  Birds and coyotes… in the rainforest.  Who knew?


It all came flooding in to me as I remembered the lyrics regarding cells, the bloodmobile, etc…  I sat in my chair with my girlie atop my lap, piloting my little phone through her rich imagination.  A post with all of her descriptions would fill this page.  I won’t do that to you.  What I will do is ask you to think about the efficacy of a touchscreen in the hands of a toddler.  Full disclosure:  I love paper.  I adore the smell of crayons.  I love sitting down at the table with her and having her pick out colors for me and bossing me around the page, telling me what to color next.  I do not think it is a good idea to passively babysit kids with electronics, or anything else for that matter.  Just because they take to it like a fish to water…  doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a good thing.

For me though, herein lies the difference in today’s experience:  it wasn’t anything close to passive.  The size of this device allowed her to be fully seated within my arms and legs for some serious one on one time.  Close is good.  After all we are humans, not computers.  We were snuggled up.  We were storytelling.  We could get away with whispering.  So I’m reflecting on the synthesis of a touchscreen loosely emulating the style of Jackson Pollock, the musical genius of They Might Be Giants, and playtime that involves close physical touch with Dad.  The fun of all of this spilled out upon my lap this dark, rainy day in March.  When does a silly phone become a handheld learning tool… a creative tool… a play toy?  Think about that.  This was fun.

Artwork credits

*”A crappy crappie jig” ~  me.
*”Cell number one” ~ Delaney
*”Cell number six” ~  Delaney
*”Rainforest with birds and coyotes” ~  Delaney & I.

Failure Is Not An Option

I.  Parallels?

Why are the mandates of NCLB so difficult to swallow…  but yet a rather analogous challenge put forth in the Apollo 13 clip below is resisted for only a short period, and then finally accepted by all in a flurry of directed action?  The 120 seconds below are cinema gold.  In this scene, Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, NASA flight director.  In briefing his team on the plight of the Apollo 13 crew, he set forth a seemingly impossible task-  a task not one of the men in the room has an easy answer to.  Give it a whirl…

Are the differences obvious?  I know-  these men will perish in short order without immediate, focused, and inspired attention.  And yet, aren’t a large number of our kids in a rather similar predicament in this country?  I would suggest that even though the “time to ultimate disaster” factor is far more lengthy… the answer is still yes.  And really, it could be argued that this is why we ended up with NCLB in the first place.  Discounting some of the more fringe and nefarious stories as to the origin and ultimate purpose of NCLB, I’d say that it is a fair assumption.

So yes, I would argue that there are parallels here.  However, the enlightened but small pack of readers here (those folks who would ever wade this far into my drivel) likely have pretty strong opinions as to what the differences here are.  Care to share a few?  It reminds me of the efficacy of sports metaphors in learning situations.  Though they almost always seem to fit in the beginning, they nearly always fall flat in practice.  Nearly always.  Why?  As a wrestling coach of nearly 20 years, I can attest to the allure of the sports metaphor.  However, there is usually a rather simple reason they fall short.  In athletics, there is nearly always an authentic, relevant, agreed-upon performance event at the end which drives all action.  So far, in US public education, we’re tried to build that same situation from the end->forward, and well…  as you know, that has thus far been a trainwreck by most measures.  As of where I sit right now, public education in America seems to be in deep need of authentic relevance and inspiring leaders.  Or is that inspiring relevance and authentic leaders?

We’ve tried the “building brains through business” model.  When do we say “nice try” and let an educator take the helm?  Actually, that previous statement likely just branded me a “fundamentalist” in some ways according to page 64 in Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s Transforming School Culture.  Now there’s a curveball.  Apparently I’m no longer as progressive as I had once thought.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have read about what Muhammad calls the “Old Contract/New Contract” so that I could remain a progressive agent of change for the better?  The last chapter I read was just seemed a bit too coercive to me from a leadership perspective.

The bottom line on my mind today?  Gene Kranz was unable to accept losing an American in space.  Yet we’re certainly “losing” a ton of Americans in our classrooms every day.  These are simply slower, quieter deaths.  Is the current coercive, CEO-headed model capable of delivering the reform we need before it is too late?  It certainly looks as if we’re going to find out.

To me, this movie clip is an awesome example of a very inspiring and seamless transfer back and forth between loose/tight leadership.  We could spark deep conversations about leadership on a fistful of points from this two-minute clip alone.  In your day to day work-  which of the characters here remind you of yourself?

II.  If I could only find…

Ever need the perfect movie clip to make a point?  Ever want to pull out just the right moment of cinema to glue all eyes and minds in one room on the same moment?  Isn’t it cumbersome to wade through two hours of video when you only need two minutes?  Find it frustrating to go through all of the the technical hassle in editing a clip from a DVD?  Not quite sure about how to abide by copyright in such situations?  Did that just sound like an ad?  What a salesman.  I think that’s probably why I stopped highlighting most webapps/services on this blog a while back.  I tend to do that on more local basis now in my district or building.  I have easily ducked any sponsored spots here from a philosophical standpoint.

Back to the slick little plug.  I like this site.  So if you need a film clip a few times in a year, well then…

“Houston… we have a solution.”

That solution is called:

As an upstart web service, Movieclips makes this process rather simple. Here, you can search through movies, genres, characters, actors, etc., to find just what you need.  If you aren’t finding that perfect clip just yet -keep in mind- the site is very new and is in the process of uploading tons of new clips each day.  The quality is rather amazing as well.  However, showing the clip at full screen resolution directly from the site allows the clip to be seen in all of its widescreen glory…  far beyond the quality of most YouTube clips.

As is typical of most any “Web2.0” app, you can comment on clips, share them out via link or embed, or simply click one button to share out via a list of the most popular social avenues such as Facebook.  Think this might be useful in some small way in your world?

The truth is, I came here to share a nifty little webservice.  I got distracted by leadership, schools, and a challenging day.


It’s not the 18 minutes

“It ain’t the six minutes, it’s what happens in the six minutes.”

This quote from the 1985 wrestling-themed movie, Visionquest, has stuck with me ever since high school.  It does have some pretty raw sailorish language within, so I chose not to embed it here.  If you are a big kid, feel free to check it out and gain a bit more context.  In the clip, the speaker of the line makes the point that although the duration of a wrestling match is a mere six minutes, what happens within can be enough to lift the human spirit.


I now implore you to take a few minutes of your day to check out a rather passionate professional, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology, Dr. Bonnie Bassler Ph.D.  Dr. Bassler’s 2009 TED talk is worth watching in its entirety.  If you are a biology teacher, the content is crucial.  Even if you just happen to be mildly interested in the world around you- then this talk is for you.  It is for anyone.  To take it a step further, turn your analysis in the direction of public speaking of any sort.  Standing in front of a crowd… trying to make a point.  What do you see here?

If you’re going to stand and deliver

Ok…  18 minutes.

This presentation takes 18 minutes, not six.  18.  In 18 minutes, she conveys the passion for her work in such a way that it is hard to even look away.  The thing is, in just this amount of time, I would suggest that she delivers more information than you’d generally try to address in a typical class session.  I would also hope that we wouldn’t engage in such exclusively one-way forms of communication in our classrooms for even this long.  18 minutes of purely one-way communication in a classroom of 25 humans isn’t teaching as much as it is preaching.  However, here in her TED talk, it works wonderfully.

So what does this mean for us as classroom teachers?  Anything?

In my opinion, we must first agree on the fact that for students to actually learn the information brought forth by this presentation, we have to at least have a healthy set of conversations breaking up this body of teacher talk.  And again-  this is only 18 minutes.  How often have you seen (or delivered) a talk that went more than 40 minutes?  How did it go? How do you know?  In this presentation, she doesn’t really have time to address the prior knowledge of her “students.”  She doesn’t have the luxury of checking for understanding.  She doesn’t really have the ability, in this amount of time and in this format, to engage others to explain their understanding of the content.  Watching this makes me think about the skills required for delivering a mini-lesson.  Even though I am still inspired by this chunk of science content, I also have a pile of questions circulating in my head:

  • What role does passion play in the classroom?
  • What about the same for humor?
  • Science teachers are constantly in a quest to make the complex palatable.  Does she accomplish this?  How so?
  • This is obviously an example of a very powerful lecture.  What is the best-case scenario for this type of communication within secondary classrooms?
  • Notice how she wraps things up near the end.  Do you get the sense she’d love to have the audience do the review instead?  I do.
  • Should all science teachers continue to conduct some level of real science as a practitioner in some way?  Why so?  Is that realistic?  Can you guess why I’m asking this question?

And one last thing…   look how she shares the love in the final slide/minute.  Do we do this often enough for the people we work with?

The skill of teacher-talk

Perhaps it is odd to use the format of a TED talk to reflect on high school classrooms today.  The one-way mode of communication here is obviously rather different than it  –should be- in a classroom, considering the way most people actually learn.  However, at some point, we reach a time in our classrooms when a solid majority of our students are stuck with the same misconception.  At some point, we’ll have to stop the collaboration and conferencing with individuals and small groups.  At some point, we’ll have to quickly slam on the breaks and make something universally clear.  At some point, we all must deliver a well-timed, carefully-crafted talk to make something that is generally fuzzy, a bit clearer for our students.

Our approaches to pedagogy needn’t swing like a pendulum.  We can talk abut this.  It’s ok.  Eventually, even the most learner-centered classrooms require eyes and minds focused on the words and thoughts of one person.  All I’m suggesting is that when you get to be that person…  be ready.  Be passionate.  Remember what can be accomplished in only 18 minutes.  How might you assure that you will be?


On Crocodiles and Professional Vision

This quote…

up to your knees in crocodiles

…(which is unattributed as far as I can tell) is one that caused pause the first time it crossed my brain.  My initial reaction to this was in regard to what happens to the early-service teacher upon logging that first real week as leader of their own classroom.  Let’s start by making the assumption that even the least-excited first year public school teacher comes to the profession with a measurable amount of idealism.  I don’t think there is any doubt about what happens to this focus once the new car smell of the school year wears off.

canine friends, vietnam mekong river


What might these metaphorical “crocodiles” be?  Difficult students?  Perplexing policies?  Wearisome course loads, a dearth of resources, demanding curricula, scarcity of support…  oh my?  I’d like to see a Venn diagram that would represent the “crocodiles” for teachers against those of school administrators.  Not so fast…  I’d also like to see this from the student perspective as well.  The more I think about this, I’m betting that a diagram of this sort would be rather telling.  I’m always of the impression that creating such constructs to forward discussion and debate only helps to clarify the landscape of our issues.  I think I just gave myself another assignment.  That will have to wait for now, but I’m hoping this post won’t let me forget.

The real question here, in my opinion, isn’t whether or not the endeavor of professional education today is a formidable one.  The real question is what do we do to keep our eye on “the swamp?”  Once the blinders are off, once you’ve hit that first wall, once the challenge clouds your vision, what do we do to stay focused?  I’d be interested in creating a string of advice for teachers or administrators to consult on that first wearisome Monday afternoon when vision seems clouded by the fog of frustration.  Care to play along?

14 more days


Take a few minutes to ponder.  Craft your response as a comment below.  Share your strategy.  It’s possible you haven’t yet identified it.  And yet, from what I interpret about the readers of this blog…  you do have one.  You do something.  You think about something.  You tell yourself something.  You have some way of turning a negative into a positive.  You have some way of maintaining your vision in tough times or you wouldn’t likely still be in the learning business… spending time reading blog posts from folks far away yet loosely tied.

You have a way of focusing on the swamp-  even when the crocs are waist deep.  Help build a set of reminders for our colleagues who will surely one day need them.  It is a sad thing to hold onto that kind of advice.  Share.


*Quote: “It is hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp when you are up to your backside in crocodiles.” by some cool old guy…  I wish I knew whom.
*Image: Canine Friends/ Vietnam, Mekong River by flydime on Flickr.
*Image: 14 More Days by Chris Martino on Flickr (amazing- this could not have fit the post better).